Tuesday 21 May 2019

How Ireland's only Skype book club - with members in Tipperary and Illinois - inspired a novel

In a case of art copying life - and books transcending borders - Felicity Hayes-McCoy based her latest novel on a Skype book club which has members in Tipperary and 6,000km away in Illinois

'Your network knows no boundaries'
'Your network knows no boundaries'
On the same page: Author Felicity Hayes-McCoy (left) with Stacia Whelan, who is a member of Ireland's only Skype book club, based in Clonmel
Skype time: Clonmel library book club with Marie Boland (pictured centre in yellow)
The Transatlantic Book Club by Felicity Hayes-McCoy is published by Hachette Ireland on the 2nd May 2019 in Trade Paperback and eBook/ 13.99

Authors and other home workers tend to lead isolated lives. You wake in the morning and, if you've no meetings to go to and, like me, no kids to cope with, willpower is the only thing that gets you to your desk. Well, willpower and deadlines. Deadlines are God's gift to those whose instinctive response to the thought of a blank computer screen is to crawl under the duvet and go back to sleep.

The bottom line is that authors have to manage their own workload, with no one around to chat to at the water cooler or give a thumbs-up across the room when you've finished a task. This is why so many writers love social media, especially Twitter, where hashtags mean that finding your tribe is a doddle. It's a virtual support network, and the sense of companionship when people respond is as bracing as a cheerful wave from a colleague. Not only that, but your network knows no boundaries. It literally stretches across the world.

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Its randomness is part of its pleasure. Just now, I logged on for no more than a couple of minutes, liked the cover of a friend's new novel, discovered that 'quafftide' was an 18th-century word for 'time for a drink', and found that someone had shared a clip of a speech made by the Speaker of the House of Commons, to which someone else had added a Gilbert & Sullivan music track.

And you can build up a remarkably diverse set of friends. Between writing chapters of novels, I chat with environmentalists, film buffs and medievalists, people who tweet about politics, cake, cartoons, farming and autism, architecture, handbags and dogs. And libraries. Especially libraries.

Hanna Casey, the heroine of my Finfarran novels, is a local librarian, and the first book in the series was called The Library at the Edge of the World. Because upcoming books are flagged online months before publication, I was tweeting with librarians from Canada to Finland long before the book was in the shops. We kept following each other, and their tweets continue to be a revelation.

Who knew that library users in Beijing share weird habits with those on the west coast of Ireland? Not me. But when The Library at the Edge of the World was translated into Chinese I found that my fictional Hanna wasn't the only librarian to come upon strange markers left in books. Believe me, the rasher she finds in a copy of Circle of Friends is nothing compared to what's turned up in real life: I'm talking condoms and slices of processed cheese, cigarettes and bits of Elastoplast.

There was also a tweet from a freaked librarian in Arkansas who'd found a circular saw blade. I try not to think about that one. Better to focus on the banknotes and pressed flowers.

Actually, there are several online threads about rashers left in library books, which annoyed me when I discovered them because I had believed I'd invented that one myself. It frequently comes up in interviews and, no matter how hard I try not to, I find myself muttering defensive things about life copying art. On the other hand, thanks once again, to Twitter, my latest novel, The Transatlantic Book Club, is an unrepentant case of art happily copying life.

A few years ago, in a gift shop in Dingle, I saw a birthday card with a picture of women in formidable hats and the caption: "My book club can beat up your book club." A lady beside me had spotted it too and we got chatting. She was in town for the day, she said, and the card had caught her eye because she loved books. In fact, she was a member of Ireland's only Skype book club, hosted by her local library and a library over in Peoria, Illinois, USA. It was one of those happenstance conversations that sticks in the mind. So, when I came to write my fifth Finfarran novel, I decided that a book club based in two countries would make a good storyline.

Then it struck me that I hadn't a clue how a Skype book club worked. Was it a kind of conference call and, if so, why bother to get together physically if each member could log in from a computer at home? I couldn't begin plotting until I'd grasped the logistics, but the conversation in the gift shop had taken place two years earlier and, to my shame, I'd forgotten both the lady's name and the town she'd said she was from.

Briefly, I considered telling my editor I'd better rethink the storyline. But instead I took to Twitter and tweeted: '#Irish #Librarians Help! What local library hosts a transatlantic book club?' Twenty minutes later, Twitter delivered pure gold. I had responses from libraries in Fingal and Sligo, putting me on to Marie Boland, a librarian in Tipperary. I called her and, once again, was blessed by happenstance. The next of the club's quarterly meetings was scheduled for the following week and Marie, who was funny and charming, invited me to come and join in.

So, a week later, I was travelling to Clonmel to visit Ireland's only Skype book club, which has quietly been flourishing for years.

It was wonderful and felt completely surreal. Stasia Whelan, the lady I'd met in Dingle, was there to meet me, as enthusiastic and friendly as she'd been by the carousel of birthday cards. The members gathered in a side room in the library, choosing seats and exchanging greetings, while Skype contact was established on a laptop which was linked to a monitor on the wall. Then, suddenly, the screen sprang to life and there was the group in Illinois, seated on rows of library chairs, just as we were, waving at their camera and watching our response.

The logistics now became obvious. There was a facilitator on each side of the ocean and everyone was used to raising their hands to make a comment, and facing their cameras and microphones when they spoke. (Turning to respond to a comment from the row behind you meant strained faces on the opposite side of the ocean, where people could neither see your face nor hear what you wanted to say.)

In Clonmel, Marie facilitated with the lightest touch and the ease of experience, summing up turning points in the discussion and encouraging quieter people to join in. Pages were frantically turned to find references and people nodded and leaned towards the screens, intent on following arguments, while occasionally cultural misunderstandings provoked explanations and smiles.

The club's choice for the session was Sebastian Barry's Days Without End, in which an immigrant Irishman comes to grips with life in the US in the 1850s. From my seat at the back, I listened as Clonmel explained the Great Famine to Peoria, and a lady on the screen described her grandparents' strained relations with their Native American neighbours.

I was blown away by the different takes and ideas bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic. Here was a physical instance of a book breaking boundaries: of ordinary people from different sides of the world exploring the similarities and contrasts in their shared understanding of a story. At a time when immigration issues and strained relations between ethnic groups seem to be building new and higher walls between communities, it was a heartening and exciting conversation to be part of.

Like any book club anywhere in the world, discussion morphed into chat now and then, as people exchanged local news and gave updates on absent members. At an early stage, there was a hiatus while a lady frantically searched in a large bag for her missing Kindle and, later, a dramatic gesture knocked a microphone sideways, producing temporary loss of sound and a certain amount of confusion. But things were gently nudged back on track and, by the end of the session, it was evident that everyone was going home with a new, communal sense of what they'd read as individuals.

I'd known before setting out for Clonmel that my fictional book club would read a classic detective story, and I'd planned how my various story strands could come together via that device. That evening, before I drove away, I fixed on The Transatlantic Book Club's title, and that I'd dedicate it to the Skype book club's members.

Coming home, I was fired up by the energy, humour and thoughtfulness I'd experienced, a thrill that stayed with me throughout the months I spent writing the novel. The real book club is planning to read and discuss it, and the other day they invited me back to Clonmel to join in. Which, besides being wonderful, feels like a new level of surreal.

'The Transatlantic Book Club' by Felicity Hayes- McCoy is published by Hachette Ireland in paperback and e-book at €13.99


Clonmel calling: How the real-life book club began

Skype time: Clonmel library book club with Marie Boland (pictured centre in yellow)

Marie Boland is a retired librarian who worked at Clonmel Library in Co Tipperary. She says:

"Clonmel has been twinned with the Illinois city of Peoria since 1998. There's always been a very active relationship between the two, with people visiting from each place over the years. One evening, I was speaking to Ted Boyle, one of the main members of the Clonmel Twinning Committee, about how wonderful it is that so many people come to Clonmel for their holidays. We started talking about how we could do something more permanent, and the idea of a Skype book club was born. Ted contacted his colleagues in Peoria and came back to say, 'It's on.' The only slight problem was that at that stage, I'd never used Skype in my life!

"Our main contacts in Peoria were a husband and wife, Terry and Cathy Tate. We decided to call ourselves the Intercontinental Readers. Together we settled on a date, picked a book and off we went. It was 7pm on a Tuesday night in Clonmel and we had around seven members gathered in the library. The first night was admittedly a bit shaky with the time delay, but we got used to it quickly. They allowed us first choice, so we decided on The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. We had great fun with both of our slants on the book.

"That was in 2011, and we decided we'd meet four times a year. We chose Irish authors and they chose American authors. They would pick out the smallest details that we would have overlooked, such as a piece of history or our education system. They were very interested in that, and luckily we had two ex-teachers in our group! There would be cultural nuances that we'd both have to explain, and they had an awful lot of trouble with Irish curse words - we had a lot of fun explaining what each one meant. As time went on, the club went from strength to strength. I got used to Skype, with its occasional time delay and video or sounds that would sometimes flick on and off. We actually got to know the people very well.

"There's a lot of Irish-Americans in Peoria so they were really interested to hear Irish history and culture. We introduced them to a lot of my favourite authors, like Barry, Joseph O'Connor, Colum McCann and Frank Delaney, who is from Tipperary but lived in upstate New York. They introduced us to authors like Geraldine Brooks and, thanks to them, I have an all-time favourite book, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

"Meeting Terry and Cathy in person a few years ago in Clonmel felt like greeting old friends. We all went out for a meal and had great fun regaling each other with Skype mishaps that thankfully went unnoticed. Since we started the club, we've read a lot of books together and had many great chats. We've learnt a lot about Illinois, and they've learnt from us, too.

"We have a lot of book clubs in the library in Clonmel, but this one was special because you are talking to a group of people from a different country, with so many different cultures. I just loved everybody's different interests, reading their recommendations and hearing about where they were from. I've just retired from the library and - once I've had some time to catch up on all the things I didn't have time for when I was working - I plan on making a trip to Peoria myself. I'd love to meet our book club members there."

In conversation with Sophie Donaldson

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