Friday 21 October 2016

My writing journey began with a gang of gringo novelists

Her creative path started on a remote hill in Mexico

Vanessa Ronan

Published 25/04/2016 | 02:30

Vanessa Ronan wrote her first novel at the age of three, before she learned the alphabet.
Vanessa Ronan wrote her first novel at the age of three, before she learned the alphabet.
The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan

When I was five my family moved to a colonial village in the mountains of central Mexico. My father was writing a book at the time. The plan? Live in Patzcuaro for nine months so he could finish his book. He'd quit his job in Houston and we'd packed all our belongings into an extended Dodge van. What couldn't fit was left in storage.

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It was a two-day drive from the US border before we arrived at our new home - a secluded hill on the edge of town where only gringo artists lived. Everyone there was a painter. Or sculptor. Or writer. No kids were allowed in the community but they'd made an exception for us. So long as we kept quiet.

We were home schooled, my brother and I. My mother handled our lessons while my father would stay upstairs and write. At that age we were sponges. Within months we'd run out of children's books so my mother started reading us adult novels as our bedtime stories-the classics mostly, but, as we grew, more contemporary fiction as well. We didn't have a TV - just up the mountain electricity wasn't even an option - so books were like films to us. The nine months turned into two-and-a-half years and, during that time, reading was our main source of entertainment.

Once or twice a month, my dad and the rest of the gringo novelists he had by then befriended would gather to read and discuss one another's work. They met at a different house each time. With no option of a babysitter, my brother and I went everywhere our parents went. We were allowed to listen to some of the stories the adults read out loud at these meetings, but others were 'too grown up' and we were told, 'Run off and play.' Sometimes we obeyed … but usually we'd circle the long way round the house and crouch just round the side of the porch in the gully by the ferns, or we'd hide around a corner or under a table where we could still listen. Sometimes I would 'just happen' to 'fall asleep' on the couch (of course, no wanted to move and wake me).

We moved to Mexico so my dad could finish his book. Unfortunately, he never did but in many ways it was where my writing journey took off. You see, I was a writer already by then. I had started when I was only small. My first novel was written before I learned the alphabet. I was three and I had this black notebook that I filled with squiggly lines. It took ages to get each one just right. When it was finished, I brought the notebook to my mother and very proudly said, 'Mommy, I wrote a book.' My mother still swears that every time I read my 'novel' to her I read the same story, word for word, as though I knew what each squiggly line meant.

I lost the code once the alphabet made sense. Once I'd learned to sound out words. But then, in learning that, oh wonder of wonders, I learned a new code. Even better. The language of my bedtime stories! The key to deciphering all the big books that filled my parents' shelves!

Writing was like a game to us as we grew up. We were home schooled all the way. My brother and I would 'edit' one another's work well into our teens. For years I primarily wrote poetry and by choice I was a bit of a recluse with what I wrote, even at one time dubbing myself a 'shower writer'. It was while getting my master's degree in creative writing at the University of Edinburgh that I gained the confidence to dig deeper and expand what had started as a short story into a longer work-which morphed and grew into The Last Days Of Summer.

I was set, young, on a writer's path, but in many ways I feel my writing journey has only just begun.

Vanessa Ronan (28) lives in Dublin with her Irish husband. The Last Days of Summer is her first novel.

Exclusive extract

'Most eyes watch his entrance with a sort of silent fury'

The whispers still growing, growing,    howling like wind. The whispers explode as Jasper begins his procession forward. A sound like wind building, growing,        gaining momentum, as it swirls round the church. The girls look to her, and Lizzie nods, and they follow their uncle down the aisle.

Lizzie trails last behind them. Like some strange wedding procession, she thinks, at a wedding where the bride is hated. Most faces are turned to Jasper and do not even look at her.

Most eyes watch his entrance with a sort of silent fury. But then the focus shifts to her as well, to her girls as they follow him, and Lizzie can't help but wonder if this is what it feels like to be Jasper, to walk among such hatred.

Jasper nods to familiar faces as he passes them. Finds an empty pew three quarters of the way towards the front. They sit down, the whispers still growing, growing all around them, howling like wind.

It is not a happy sound, not a peaceful sound at all, and Lizzie wonders briefly if their mama is looking down and if she's howling too. Not everyone remembers to whisper any more, and voices rise, getting louder, angrier all around them. The hinges squeak and groan as the church's heavy oak doors are pulled shut. For a moment, Lizzie feels her heart quicken, panic rising in her chest, tightening her throat.

The reverend walks quickly to his pulpit and holds out both his hands, palms up, to his congregation. 'People, people, please,' he calls. 'Let us not forget, this is God's house.'

'He shouldn't be here!' someone calls out. She turns but cannot see who spoke. A young man's voice. There's a murmur of agreement from the rest of the congregation, like a restless, uneasy wave swelling around them.

'Children, children, please!' Reverend Gordon calls, palms still out and open. 'Let us calm ourselves. We are all God's children. He turns his back on no one. Even sinners are granted salvation when they repent.'

'Amen,' Jasper murmurs, and Lizzie wonders if she is the only one to hear him. Around them, whispers crackle, bodies shift as people strain to look over, or as people avert their eyes and fidget.

Extracted from The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan. Published by Penguin Ireland on the 5th May at €17.99 © Vanessa Ronan 2016

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