Episode 003 – Back from the Summer School

Stephen Gordon Happy, Podcast, Writing

Hello, hello, hello. I only needed one hello but my editing software glowers at me when I repeat words, and sometimes I like to punish it.

I spent last week as the Bursary Liason for the John Hewitt Society International Summer School. It was a brilliant week of books, conversation, and staying up past midnight looking for keys, bags, and the occasionally lost student. I also introduced Jo Baker, got told off for texting during her reading and managed to look like I was doing a magic trick in the process. (I wasn’t texting, but some thieving bastard stole my notebook and my two-thumb typing skills are well fly).


I forgot that running gives me a post-run high which is fatal when left alone with a working video camera and an internet connection. There is a 25-minute Ramble over on YouTube. Heartfelt, unstructured and as soon as figure out where I’ve packed everything I’ll do another one.

It was good to get out running again. Armagh is a beautiful city, all steampunk architecture and the oval route around the mall made for a meditative experience that encouraged form over speed and distance. I ran for 45 minutes, loved every second and remember none of it. Find a loop, run and relax.


So much happy and it’ll take ages to pick it all out of the notes I’ve left on my phone, post-its, the backs of programs and everywhere else I used instead of my stolen notebook.

The No1 bubbling well of joy was an entire week surrounded by writers, poets, artists, musicians and creative hybrids who reminded me of the importance of authenticity, collaboration, keeping my mouth shut and listening.

If you write, get out and about in the company of other writers and talk about the big stuff. It creates a lot of happy hormones.


As well as getting me told off for texting, using my smartphone as a writing tool is draining the device’s batteries and my energy. It’s the hundreds and thousands of micro-transactions that come with owning a device that continuously connects you to multiple social networks, note taking apps, news apps and other time wasters that seemed like a good idea at the time but all add up to become your personal hamster wheel spilling mental caffeine into your mind.

I’m not a Luddite, and it’s handy to have but the more I put down the phone and pick up a pen and paper the better I feel and the more I get done. Now that the school is over the phone will have a new home on top of the mantlepiece when I get home and stay there until I go out again the next day.

It’s back to notebooks full time for planning, notes, and first drafts and being a bit more careful to stop the next one being robbed (that’s bugging me, and I need to let it go).

Here’s my introduction of Jo Baker to the John Hewitt International Summer School last week.

Jo Baker Introduction

Jo Baker is the author of six novels, including 2013’s critically acclaimed and widely successful Longbourn, which developed the events in Pride and Prejudice from the servant’s point of view and is currently in pre-production as a film from the same group who brought the Oscar-winning ‘The Danish Girl’ to the big screen.

Jo has written for BBC Radio 4 and has short stories included in numerous anthologies. Educated at Oxford with a PhD from Queen’s University, Belfast She lives in Lancaster, England, with her husband and two children.

Jo’s new book ‘A Country Road, A Tree’ re-creates the author and playwright Samuel Beckett’s war years, from his desperation to leave Ireland, through his time in occupied Paris working for the resistance, to his postwar job helping set up a French hospital. And always, through danger and deprivation his compulsion to write continues through all of this.

There’s a long-standing debate if art, in whatever form, should be separated from the artist or if we, as the audience, should include the life of the art’s creator as part of the experience.

Watching Faustus performed at the Globe knowing its author, Christopher Marlowe, was a reckless spy, counterfeiter and heretic add authenticity to the choices made by the protagonist on the stage.

Once you know of Jame’s Joyce and Ernest Hemingway’s habit of drunkenly teaming up for bar brawls in Dublin, Joyce starting them, Hemingway finishing them, it becomes difficult not to see the work from either man in new ways.

These examples are the stuff of boys own adventures and a reflection of what the reader, in this case, me, wants to see rather than what was likely intended. In a Country Road, A Tree Jo Baker shares a dramatic account of Beckett and his work as something unavoidably great coming from an undeniably human source.

Perhaps the best example of this real, human hero is from Beckett’s time as part of the French resistance where he was responsible for information causing fatal strikes to Nazi infrastructure. He hides the reports he creates from the invaders in the manuscript of his first novel, Murphy because he feels it ‘is by far the safest place to keep something that he doesn’t want people to read.’

Beckett self-doubts and deprecates himself right from the start of the novel, even Joyce the aspiring bar brawler makes an early appearance for Beckett to compare against and judge himself unworthy.

Despite this, despite the hurdles and obstacles external and self-inflicted Beckett doggedly pursues his art quietly and consistently. In a mirror image of today’s culture of celebrity without achievement, the Irish author worked hard to achieve while seeming never to think it would be a cause for celebration by others.

A Country Road isn’t just a good book; The Guardian put it best that this is an extraordinary story that shines a light both on individuals caught up in the sweep of history and the way life is transmuted into art.

Brilliantly hidden within this novel of a thoughtful, vulnerable hero is a map for the creative process that should be required reading for aspiring novelists and poets alike.

Would you join me in welcoming Jo Baker to the 29th John Hewitt International Summer School?

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Stephen Gordon

Stephen Gordon is a writer based in Northern Ireland. He writes thrillers, murder mysteries and science fiction. He also blogs and podcasts about writing, marketing and getting stuff done.
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