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Mary Burnham's Column

Mary Burnham

Mary Burnham's voracious appetite for reading and her delight in sharing her book knowledge with our customers made her the natural choice when we wanted to appoint a Book Club advisor.

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Friends, Family, Lovers and Plenty of Solitude = Happiness!

As I walked to work today, I was greeted by friends and customers alike: 'Morning Mary', 'Hi, Mary, how’s it going?' 'Hello Mary, good to see you!' Peter, an old friend who was with me, asked if I was going for election as he just couldn’t get over the amount of chit chat and friendly banter that accompanied us from one end of the town to the other. I just grinned at him, knowing it was because I was born in this place, grew up and did all the usual stuff that made me what I am today, went away for a long time, came back as if the intervening years had passed in the blink of an eye, and now worked in the heart of my hometown, Dun Laoghaire. Of course, I know loads of people by name – as they know me. It’s one of the things I like about the place. But even I can’t imagine how irritating it must be to be really famous, when you’re unable to go out without being harassed by well-intentioned fans and a dedicated postal van arrives every single day with sacks full of mail. It would grind me down me very quickly and quite possibly drive me nuts.

My Salinger Year jacketJoanna Rakoff’s first job after dropping out of college was as an assistant in a New York literary agency. What a cool job! Well, the reality was that her opinion was never sought and she sat at a desk all day typing on an ancient machine. When a computer was eventually installed, she was warned, heaven forbid, never to use it, either as part of her job or for her own personal benefit. Joanna became aware of the agency’s most important author, J.D. Salinger, a recluse who had to be handled only by the boss and absolutely nobody else. “HELLO! HELLO!” Salinger would shout down the phone to a terrified Joanna, asking “WHO IS THIS?” Joanna hastily put him through, afraid to make even the smallest of small talk. “Well, nice to meet you, Suzanne,” said Salinger. Over time, the author eventually got her name right and started to converse a little so that, when she finally met him, Joanna had become a real person and not some nameless follower of his work.

Not long after she joined the agency, Joanna was given the shed load of correspondence that came from all over the world to the beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey. They came from children, war veterans, movie stars and troubled teens, but she had strict instructions that no matter who wrote, or what they wrote, the answer would always be the same:

Dear Miss/Mr So-and-So:
Many thanks for your recent letter to J.D. Salinger. As you may know, Mr Salinger does not wish to receive mail from his readers. Thus, we cannot pass your kind note on to him. We thank you for your interest in Mr Salinger’s books.
The Agency

Of course, Joanna couldn’t resist and wrote back, giving words of encouragement, explaining her predicament, understanding theirs, signing off with her own name. The mountain, however, continued to grow until eventually, she had to stop. Perhaps she began to feel something of Salinger’s dilemma: he wanted his work to sell, he micromanaged everything about his books from the cover to the typeface, but was unable to deal with the deluge of fandom, something I hope never to experience. My Salinger Year is a glimpse into the literary world where rejection letters are routinely sent out. Yet, every now and then, a new author will catapult onto the scene with great stories that will never go out of print.


During the Q&A session at the end of author readings, there is one question that is asked every single time: "How do you knuckle down at your desk day after day after day?" The answer, it is hoped, will provide aspiring writers with a magic formula to follow, helping them to write that special novel they are bursting to get down on paper. The last author who answered this question – to a small but adoring audience – confessed that she started her day by checking her emails, then clicked on a political website to make sure her representatives were doing their job, rechecked her emails for replies, back again to politics and so on until, "Gosh, it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and I’ve got nothing done!" This author wrote when she could and didn’t bother when she couldn’t and in between times she produced three excellent books.

Genius is One Percent Inspiration, Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration

-Thomas Alva Edison

Do No Harm jacketMason Currey, fascinated by the writing process, set out to find the answer to that same question only to discover there are a myriad of ways to knuckle down. In Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, you will read how Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Philip Roth, Leo Tolstoy and many more writers, artists, and musicians set about their daily work of producing original material. There is no mystique, no regular flashes of inspiration coming out of thin air, only work, hard work, and plenty of it.

John Cheever remembers his younger days when he’d "wake at eight, work till noon, and then break, hollering with pleasure; then I’d go back to work through till five, get pissed, get laid, go to bed, and do the same thing again next day." Cheever produced novels, short stories and journals, a testament to sheer hard work punctuated by heavy drinking and depression. In 1982, he was awarded the National Medal for Literature at Carnegie Hall at which he said: "A page of good prose remains invincible."

Victor Hugo was forced into exile by Napoleon III and lived on Guernsey where he installed his mistress a few doors down from the family home. While there he wrote his most famous work, Les Misérables: he wrote steadily from dawn till 11am, socialised through lunch with a steady stream of visitors, went for a carriage ride with his mistress, had his daily visit to the barbershop, and then worked for a time in the afternoon. According to his family, he carried a notebook with him at all times, pausing to jot down anything faintly interesting that then usually appeared in his writings.

Charles Dickens was a hugely productive writer who needed absolute quiet in which to work. He was punctilious in the way he approached his writing. According to his eldest son, "no city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy." From the man who gave us David Copperfield (my personal favourite) and many more stories that are constantly in print, we learn that there is no substitute for dedicated hard work in your chosen profession.

There seems to be no set method for writing other than deciding on what works for you and sticking to it. The difference between those of us in print and those of us who struggle to be so, is to find a daily ritual that suits you, sit on that chair with your back to the view and with the door firmly shut.