During my first teaching practice, we had an English reading lessons; the book was called Stanely by Peter Gunning. I had to take it home the night before and read one chapter, but I read the whole book and loved it. There were never books like that when I was in school. This was an Irish book, a funny and kinda irreverent child’s book. I Googled the author and could not find any information. For another English lesson we did writing, I wanted to relate this to the reading we did during the week but when I told my pupils we would be writing a diary entry from Stanley’s perspective; it was met with an eye roll.
I couldn’t help but ask my pupils; what do you think you could do for this lesson instead?” They didn’t know so I suggested we write him an e-mail. Now, it took me about 5 solid hours to find him, like, you’re talking to a gal who got an A on an assignment thanks to the power of Google. So, when I say it was hard to find him…..it was really hard. Lucky for me I am probably one of the most stubborn people I know, and I would not relent until I had his email address; which of course I found.
Peter was kind enough to email my class back, they LOVED this and it made my teaching practice. So here I am a year later, with a blog and an interest in asking people why they like to write…..so here you go an interview with the fabulous author, teacher and principal; PETER GUINING.
What was the inspiration to start writing?
That invaluable 1% inspiration happened quite by accident rather than design. I was always aware that writing was something I could do but lacked the discipline to do something about it. Ardal O’Hanlon tells the story that if you walk into any bar in Ireland you will find it is full of writers. In similar bars in the UK these people are called drunks. While not quite falling into that category I wasn’t prepared to consider 99% perspiration.
At the time I was teaching in St Josephs BNS in Cork city and had a third class. I wanted to do a play with them but when I went looking for a suitable text I couldn’t find one. I certainly couldn’t find one that would accommodate speaking parts for all 36 boys. The solution was to I make up my own and hence Alas in Blunderland came into being. O’Brien Press were the publishers and they asked me to consider a novel. I wrote Stanley but they sent me back the manuscript and asked me to consider re-writing it through the eyes of the main character, Stanley. ( I had written from the perspective of Stanley’s dad.) This was an editorial suggestion too far. I then sent the ms of Stanley to Blackwater Press who published it.
Why children’s books?
Don’t know. Just the way it panned out. I suppose working with children was inspirational in that I had a good idea as to what children liked to read. When I wrote Stanley I piloted on an unsuspecting class chapter by chapter and their response convinced me that it worked. I did the same with Reaching the Heights and Kick the Can.
In recent years I have been writing for big people dabbling in sports journalism which is a passion/obsession of mine. In 2007 I won the Sunday Tribune Peter Ball prize for aspiring sports journalists (I was 48!) and since then I wrote regularly for the Trib until its unfortunate demise earlier this year. From a personal point of view this was a huge disappointment as the Trib published stuff I wanted to write, articles left of centre, sports psychology, philosophy sort of thing. I must now find a new home for my obsession!
Did you find it difficult getting your book published, getting an agent, getting publicity?
No. I was lucky in that O’Brien picked up Alas in Blunderland and liked it but dropped Stanley
with equal ease. Blackwater took Stanley
and then Reaching the Heights
and Kick the Can.
Their sister publishing house Folens also published several of my plays as part of their reading schemes and then asked me to author a sixth class English book as part of the Magic Emerald series. Now that the Sunday Tribune is gone I now find myself in the position of looking for a publisher as I want to write a sports bio. That said I have a number of subjects that I want to write about and I hope that the names will interest publishers.
Did you find the writing/ editing process difficult?
Yes but I am a bit of a perfectionist with all my writing so I am very hard on myself before I send my work to anybody else. This pays dividends in that I generally have the editing done before the publisher gets to read.
Did you have to do much promo for your books – like book signings…if yes how did you find that?
I love seeing my books in shops (merited pride meets vanity). I did a few local signings but also get invited to schools and book festivals, which I enjoy very much. I also write back to schools who contact me and I enjoy this because I know as a teacher the excitement and joy children get from receiving feedback from writers.
What are you working on now?
As a principal, trying to run a very busy school! We have twelve mainstream classes, three classes in An Cuan our centre for children with autism and a huge building extension on the way. As a writer I want to do that sports bio, I have a shortlist of three subjects only one of which I have contacted. If he says no, I will then contact number 2 etc…
When are you going to set up a Twitter account?
Confession time. Twitter who? I think emailing and texting are the outer limits of my cyberworld. That said my daughter is pushing me to set up a proper Facebook profile so I might dabble in that. Twitter seems weird. A friend of mine seems addicted so much so that when we go for a pint he always seems to be multi-tasking, drinking, talking and twittering. I prefer to do things two at a time.
What are you hobbies outside of writing?
I’m a runner! I have run three marathons this year and seven in total. I run for Midleton AC. I also cycle and am recovering from the recent Ring of Kerry event. I follow Cork hurlers and footballers and Munster Rugby as well as Midleton RFC, Midleton GAA and my family club Na Piarsaigh. I am an Aston Villa fan since I was seven years old and travel to Birmingham at least once a year to see them play. I take my youngest son, Cathal with me. I used to bring Fin (who is now 22) and Sinéad( 19) but they have better things to be doing than sharing in their Dad’s obsessions. I love nothing better than weekends away for sporting events. I also love pubs Books. Newspapers. Good company. Conversations. Teaching. Talking about teaching. Education. Talking about education. Sitting on the patio in summer drinking coffee and reading. Music. Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, REM,.. Comedy, comedians, funny people and loads more! (Did I mention Guinness, Heineken and micor-brewed beers?)
What kind of books do you read?
Everything! Lots of sports books but I love fiction. John Irving is a favourite of mine with A prayer for Owen Meaney one of my all time favourites.
What kind of TV shows or movies do you watch?
Curb Your Enthusiasm is my favourite at the moment. I think Larry is a genius. I have also got into In Treatment which is amazing. I love the whole psychotherapy world and Gabriel Byrne plays a blinder. I enjoy cinema. I saw Senna recently which blew me away, incredible how they put together an entire film with old footage and past interviews. I took Cathal (he took me?) to the last Harry Potter this weekend. Loved it.
What do you find inspiring?
The unexpected. I picked up a book of short stories by Colm Toibín in Waterstones on Saturday I went into a coffee shop and read the first one and it has haunted my dreams since. I hadn’t expected that. I suppose the wonder and awe of the creative process, beauty, love…
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Get up of your arse and get down on your arse and write! When you’ve written some write some more and more and more and don’t stop. Beckett once said something like “fail, then fail again, fail better!”So true. A few years ago an aspiring writer wanted to meet me to show me some of her work. I didn’t want to meet her because I had sixth sense uncomfortable feeling that this wasn’t going to be a Colm Toibín moment. When I did meet her she showed me a list of titles of ideas she had for future books. Yes you’ve guessed it, we were in a pub …… surrounded by fellow Irish writers!