What do you write about?

‘So, what do you write about?’ Is there a worse question to ask a writer? What do I write ‘about’?

First, some context. I spent Saturday at a friend’s wedding in London. The day was fantastic, the lovely couple were just that, the people were all great company, the food, the drink, the whole atmosphere was brilliant, and everyone had a whale of a time. As we all mingled, introduced ourselves, made small talk, and generally relaxed as the day and the booze flowed, the questions started as to what we all did. I had been asked to read a poem at the ceremony, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, I was delighted to be part of the day and the fact that I am a writer was probably a good part of why I was asked. So the guests would know I write, and so they would be interested, as much as we were all interested in what everyone else does, in what it is I actually write, and what I write about.

I know in this modern world of ours we’re all meant to have a soundbite, or a tweet-long summation of everything we do, anything else is old fashioned. But what do you actually say? Maybe it would have been easier when I still thought I was a crime writer, at least I could say I write crime stories, and wait as the questioner pictures whatever version of crime fiction they have in their heads. But as I’m now writing in the ‘literary’ genre, what do I say?

I could try to expound on the great themes I perceive in my work, but as I don’t have the academic facility for language and the subtleties of critical thought I’d probably fall over myself, plus I didn’t want to come across as a prick. So I mumbled, said I write short stories, tried to refer to the stories I recently had published in gorse and The Stinging Fly, and hoped they’d ask me something else, or just move on.

Maybe it’s an easier question for people who have been published, and by that I mean have had a book by themselves published, a physical thing, sitting somewhere on a shelf? So when someone at that stage is asked they can always just refer to their book and move on. But when you’re reliant on disparate stories appearing here and there you don’t even have that luxury.

I mean, what do I say? Do I say I sit myself inside the skull of my characters (usually just one, and usually just me) and describe what I see and feel as events transpire, or not? Do I say I write of desperation, or longing, or try to capture fleeting moments before they disappear? Do I say I try to write about the vagaries of love, or just its sheer impossibility? Do I say that a tryst in a temporary space like a hotel room is more real to me than the fantasy of a life-long commitment, of domesticity, of an aspirational happiness? Do I say any of the not particularly happy, not particularly friendly, not particularly cheery ideas that float around inside my skull and find their way onto the page?

Do I say any of these things, and watch as my fellow wedding guests beat a polite retreat to another part of the garden where the seats are that bit more comfortable, the wine flowing that little bit easier, the canapes that little bit tastier, or the purely coincidental fact that just as I speak they spy the arrival of an old friend they just ‘have’ to say hello to and I’m left to contemplate the flight path of a passing jet and my empty glass? Or do I squirm and try to find some way out of the question as soon as possible and a way of changing the conversation to something that feels less like it comes with thumbscrews?

Did you know, the bride and two of her friends,

who are both here too, used to make dresses for the Queen!?

Maybe I just need to rehearse something, have a soundbite in my back pocket, something?

It’s interesting that when writers meet we often ask each other if we’re working on anything at the moment, usually just saying you’re working on a short story, a poem, an essay or a novel is more than enough. We want to be polite; we want to be interested, we want to be friendly, but most of all we don’t want to be asked what we’re writing about, so we skirt around the question until we can find anything else to talk about.

‘I was at this wedding recently, and you’ll never guess

what the bride and two of her friends used to do?’




Over the weekend I read an article on the Death of the Novel, a fairly common theme, and one that’s probably been around since shortly after the first appearance of the novel. Anyway, I’ll put a link below and you can read it, or not.

For me, I suppose, all the claims about what the world of social media does to our ability to communicate leave, if you want, a question as to what the novel is actually for anymore? If we can say anything we want and have it circle the world in nanoseconds what is the point of slaving for years for some ink stains on slices of dead trees instead?

My own opinion, and one I did tweet (so like the rest it’s circling the world somewhere still, like a dead satellite), is that novels give us the space to write about what we can’t, or won’t, speak about anywhere else. They allow us to explore those interior spaces that the arc lights of social media will never be able to reach (or maybe I just shouldn’t have been reading Clarice Lispector on the plane home).

Anyway, maybe that’s what I say the next time someone asks me what I write about, I’ll just make sure that I’ve stocked up on plenty of prosecco and canapes first before I open my mouth, it could be a long, lonely afternoon after that!






At the Belfast Book Festival

Yesterday I drove up to Belfast to read as part of the Belfast Book Festival.

The event was a celebration of Irish literary journals, two readers each from The Tangerine, Banshee, and myself and Annemarie Ní Churreáin representing The Stinging Fly, each got to read a sample of our work in the setting of the Crescent Art Centre.


Tangerine Belfast 2(my, ‘plugging the journal’ pose)


I read an extract from my story Lying on a Beach, which features in the Summer 2017 issue of The Stinging Fly.

I traveled up with my good friends Susan Tomaselli, the editor of gorse, and the poet and essayist Dimitra Xidous. There’s nothing like a good discussion about the importance of breakfast to make a car journey more enjoyable (it was actually much more fun, and interesting, than it sounds, but I’ll leave the explanation to others!)

It was a really enjoyable event, with a great crowd. My only regret is that I couldn’t stay on longer to enjoy the hospitality more.

Tangerine Belfast pic

(under the watchful gaze of Declan Meade, editor of The Stinging Fly)

At the gorse #8 Launch

Sitting alone in a room writing is one thing, having people read your work later can be nerve-wracking enough, but reading it out loud can be exhilarating and terrifying all in one.

At the recent launch of gorse #8 I was delighted to be asked to read part of my story, Cinq à Sept, and was full of confidence on the night, all the way up until two feet from the microphone. However, nerves or not I think I managed to get through it without cocking it all up, which is nice.


Gorse 8 Launch Picture


What’s more, there’s now a podcast of the readings on the night which you can listen to here (my own reading starts at about the 36 minute mark, but I strongly urge you to listen to the whole podcast, there was some really outstanding work on show that night, and I was humbled to be a part of it all)


My Short Story, Lying on a Beach, in The Stinging Fly

After trying for many years I’m delighted to have a short story ‘Lying on a beach’ published in the Summer 2017 edition of The Stinging Fly.

The journal itself is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year and I’m really happy to have made the cut.

The journal is, as they say, available in all good bookshops, or through the journal website. I really hope as many of you as possible can pick up a copy of the journal and read my story, it’s one that really means a lot to me


Stinging Fly Cover - Summer 2017

Part in Dog-Ear

I came across an interesting online journal recently, Dog-Ear, which publishes in an unusual way.

They take short pieces, prose or poetry, and publish them online. Then, every three months or so, they pick their favourite pieces and publish them as a fold-up sheet, a bookmark, which is sold directly through their site, or included in other literary journals as they are sold. A really nice way of marking your page and having something to read at the same time.

Anyway, they very kindly accepted my piece of short fiction, Part, which is currently online, I won’t know for a few months whether it’ll make the physical insert, but fingers crossed.

Enjoy, and enjoy reading the other contributors too.




Me, Jean Rhys and Wide Sargasso Sea

Through one of those strange coincidences that make up life I recently retweeted a post from a Jean Rhys twitter account. This was spotted by one of the producers of The Book Show, on RTE Radio 1, and I was asked to participate in a piece they were putting together on Jean Rhys and her most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea.

It was really interesting to be a small part of the show, and if nothing else it’s nice to be referred to as ‘writer Colm O’Shea’ on the national airwaves.

You can listen here, the Jean Rhys segment begins at around the 26 minute part, though do listen to the full show.




Gorse #8

I’m delighted to have a short story ‘Cinq à Sept‘ published in the latest issue of gorse.

I was lucky enough to have a story in issue 2 so it’s really great to make the cut again.


Apart from my own efforts you REALLY should check out the new issue, it’s fantastic and contains some great pieces of work.

It should, as they say, be hitting all good bookshops in the very near future, but just in case you have trouble getting a copy you can always buy one via the gorse website, enjoy!!






I’ve spent the last year working on a short story collection, which I’ve now finished and will start submitting shortly. It makes a change from the novels I’ve tried so far and reflects the acceptance of a point I’ve come to with regard to my writing.

I thought I was a crime writer, or more to the point I thought I could write the kind of novels I’ve tried in, as has been called, a Hardboiled-Modernist style, submit them, have them be accepted, and published. Most of the rejections I’ve received for these efforts circle around the commercial possibilities of my work. Writing in any genre, especially in something like crime, the books have to have a commercial appeal, it’s too tough out there now for writers, publishers and booksellers to ignore that fact, and looking at what I’ve been trying I can appreciate that the commercial side of things is where my efforts to date have been falling down.

In parallel with my ‘crime writing’ I’ve been writing short stories, and have had some published, and have come to the realisation that they don’t represent a sideline while I was waiting for something else, or somewhere to practice writing, but are an integral part of what I want to write.

So, as I said, I spent the last twelve months working on a short story collection, which I’m very happy with.

I’ve also decide to stop trying to be published as a ‘crime’ writer, I just can’t make it work, and will instead attempt to be classified as a ‘literary’ writer. I know that both are just genres, and in an ideal world both titles would be redundant as all writing would be judged on its quality alone, but publishing, and especially modern publishing, requires a hook (or a scaffold) to hang each writer on, so this is the path I’ve chosen.

Funnily enough I don’t feel any different as a writer, and I haven’t made any conscious efforts to change what it is I actually write, but certainly when it comes to writing another novel I won’t be trying so hard to fit into a crime genre.

Incidentally I have an idea for a novel which does involve some of the tropes and characteristics of crime, specifically noir, fiction, but I’ll be coming at everything in a much more experimental manner, but more about that at another time.

I still know in my head exactly what sort of writer I am, and who it is who inspires me, and where I aim to go as a writer, and I feel it’s a lot easier to just hang it all under the name ‘literary’ to avoid having to qualify everything as I try to explain myself.

So for the moment I’m a short story writer, I’ll probably always be writing short stories, I really get a lot of pleasure out of them, even if they are bloody hard work, and I feel I can say exactly what it is I want to say in them. I also have my experimental novel to work on, which I’ve already started and is really exciting me, so while I may be a failed crime novelist I’m enthusiastic and eager for the words ahead, and anxious to see how it all works out (though no flipping ahead to see whodunit!!)


And yes, Bowie would be the obvious accompaniment here, but I thought I’d try this one instead.

Dromineer Literary Festival Flash Fiction Competition

I was delighted to be awarded third prize in the Dromineer Literary Festival Flash Fiction competition on Saturday afternoon.

Myself and the other award winners got to attend and read our pieces in the Lough Derg Yacht Club in Dromineer overlooking the picturesque Lough Derg.

Congratulations to the other winners (and the winners in the Poetry Competition too) and thanks again to the festival organisers and judges.

My story is included here, hope you like it.








Story in Hotel

I’m delighted that the people behind Hotel, a stunning new journal of new approaches to fiction, non-fiction and poetry have decided to publish my short story ERWIN SCHRÖDINGER BLUES on their website.

I hope you enjoy reading it, and the other great pieces they’ve published online. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a hard copy of the journal to see what wonders they’ve published there too.