Author Interview: Novelist Helen Seymour, author of Beautiful Noise, interviewed by Philip Cummins

Making a noise: My interview with novelist Helen Seymour was published Rí-Rá: The entertainment supplement of The Irish Post.

Originally published in the print edition of The Irish Post on Wednesday April 27th, 2013

“I can tell you now that that cover is printed on 320 gsm and that the inside cover is 80 gsm Munken; I can tell you that the printer tried to pull the wool over my eyes and print it on 270 gsm and I had a fight with him; I can tell you that this is a single press: you can actually have a double press where you get like a little flat spine going along it; I can tell you it’s silk coated on both sides so that the photograph on the inside of the back is just a little bit shiny. I can tell you a lot about that and for a lot of people that would be scary, but for me it’s just advertising. So printing the book and publishing it didn’t scare me.”

Helen Seymour is a pro. Though she rejects the perception of herself as a ‘Celtic Tiger High Flyer’ (“That expression in itself is kind of bizarre”), when I meet the former advertiser, marketer and now first time novelist , she exudes the sort of confidence synonymous with those atop the crest of Ireland’s wave a decade ago.

Striding impressively across the upstairs foyer of Dublin’s Westbury hotel, the 44 year old arches her pink tinted Chanel sunglasses atop her head as she gestures towards me and greets me with a confident display of cordial pleasantries. She’s clearly used to meeting business professionals following 17 years at the coalface of marketing and advertising.

She leads the way as we find a table at which to seat ourselves. “Hmm…,” she says. ‘Too near the ailse. What about the window…that sun is strong…”

Seymour, a self- described “control freak” who used to run her own company, eventually settles on a table, seating herself on a couch and strategically placing herself within clear view of the outside clock of a pub down on the street, before ordering a double espresso.

For the next two hours she’ll prove engaging company as she discusses her bold move to follow her dream and jack- in her highly successful (and lucrative) day job in order to write her debut novel. Along the route she’ll touch on her friendship with Bono, the influence Ireland’s pirate radio stations of the 80’s had on her, and turning down an offer from renowned publisher, Harper Collins.

Beautiful Noise

Seymour’s novel, Beautiful Noise, a story of three young Dubliners who set up Studio One, a pirate radio station that takes on RTÉ, has been lauded by everyone from Roddy Doyle to Bono. The U2 frontman even launched the work in the full glare of the national media last February; unheard of, for a self- published writer.

Writing about a pirate radio in 1980’s Dublin, she says, came by default rather than design.

“I grew up in an era of no mobile phones, no internet,” Seymour says. “You had two television stations, five if you were lucky.” Wide- eyed with wonder, she recalls how she first discovered pirate radio stations such as Big D and Radio Dublin, a breeding ground for future RTÉ talent such as Dave Fanning and the late Gerry Ryan. She was struck, she claims, by the alternative ways of thinking and non- mainstream culture that pirate radio fed on.

“I was always going to be a writer, I think, though I didn’t know that back then. But writing was always what I wanted to do; it was at the heart of who I was. So worlds interested me and there were all these fascinating little worlds. And I used to just sit there, night after night, going up and down the dial.”

In fact, Seymour’s years listening to pirate radio partly influenced her move into advertising at age 21 and, from the off, she begun working within the medium.

“I remember on my first day [in advertising] my boss said ‘“Get your coat, we’re going to 2FM; we’ve won the 2FM PR account.”’, she recalls. “So by no great plan of my own, I went from a position- and I never married the two in my head at the time, but it’s only in hindsight when I look back- that I married the obsession with pirate radio as a teenager to suddenly, properly working for professional radio. And we had the Coca Cola account and they spent so much money in 2FM. 98FM and FM104 had just been launched…I was constantly in and out of those stations doing promotions, sponsorships, radio events.” All of which to say, that Seymour’s didn’t choose to write about radio- it simply chose her.

Seymour’s other childhood obsession was of course the written word. An avid reader as a child, she talks glowing of Enid Blyton’s novels before spending time in the company of Jilly Cooper and Joan Collins. She reserves her highest praise, however, for John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which chronicles the life of writer T.S. Garp and his feminist mother, Jenny.

“Nothing was ever quite the same after ‘…Garp’. No book was ever the same. I kept reading the girls books and they were just like ‘blah’. Like the books in school- Pride and Predjudice, Henry James…you know, they were good, but nothing excited me the way ‘Garp’ excited me; that was somebody with a real voice: a voice that spoke to me.”

She would later read two more books that leave a similar impression on her: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which she read as a 30 year old, and Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, a novel involving the music scene in Dublin which, like Seymour’s Beautiful Noise was Doyle’s first book and which he initially self- published.

Reflecting on her 17 years, in marketing and advertising, Seymour has, seemingly, no regrets. If anything, she seems to have enjoyed it.

“What I didn’t realize was that advertising was satisfying my creative needs, because it was “write a radio ad, design it next week”, “design a press ad…”, you’re constantly creating and it’s very instantaneous; it’s not “oh, I’ll sit in my room for five years and write a novel and hope that someone will buy it and put it out.” You see your work driving past you on trucks, you see it on TV., so it satisfied my creative needs for a long time. But somewhere along the line, something began knocking at the door about writing. It was just like “I’d love to write, I’d love to write and I just didn’t believe that I could leave my job and become a writer. I mean, how would I earn money? How would I live how would I survive?”

Eventually, at age 38, cynicism towards the notoriously cut throat, shark-infested waters of advertising began to seep in. After a gruelling three month interview process for a high- powered role with a British charity,  she was offered the role only for the job to fall through before contracts were signed. By this stage, however, she had relinquished control of her company and found herself ‘standing on the tarmac with my suitcase packed but with nowhere to go. She her mind up there and then to get out of advertising.

“I was gutted. That three month process ended my relationship with advertising. I had no idea where I was going, where I was going to go. A friend of mine lived in Martha’s Vineyward. I had some savings and I’d never taken any extended leave; it was always just the two week holiday. After 6 weeks, I did a four day writing course. I turned each one of my stories into a comedy. On the last day, I felt the electricity that I first felt when I started writing. My arm was on fire.”

After returning from the states in January 2007, refreshed and energised  she moved back in with her mum at her house in Howth and took a job as waitress in The Oar House restaurant in Howth, where her new co- workers had once recognised her as a regular customer. She describes it as a job that doesn’t drain her brain power as advertising did, leaving her with plenty of energy to focus on her prose writing.

On the Path to Publication

Soonafter, Seymour approached Marrianne Gunn O’Conner, the Irish based literary super- agent, who took her on under the condition of a title change from Studio One and that Seymour cut 30,000 words.

A deal with Harper Collins soon followed and Seymour’s path to literary glory seemed assured. It all came to sudden halt, however.

“After signing with Harper, they came back and suggested a title change: I’d already done one title change and didn’t fancy doing another at that stage. It was originally titled Studio One. So I started working with Harper. Then Harper gave me the first set of edits. Let’s say they gave me ten notes. And they way they give it to you is over the phone and through bullet points. I didn’t agree with any of their ten bullet points. None of them.

“And my agent, Marianne, said to me; “Look, I want you to take these and sit with them and think about them and come back.” So I took a month off work. A friend of mine was selling her house; the house was empty. I went in with a portable table and chair and did nothing for a month but sat and look and digest their edits. And I did about 50% of them. I knew, deep down, however, that I had to make my own book; it wouldn’t be my book if I took all their editorial suggestions. Edits are very important and it’s an art in itself. But it’s also so objective. I couldn’t let the book out there unless I was 100% happy with the overall product.”

Eventually, Seymour self published and her mix of DIY punk ethics and her expertise in design came to the fore. Within months, she had printed the book in Sweden at almost half the price that eight printers in Ireland had offered her. Gill & MacMillan took care of VAT, invoicing, distribution to bookshops.

Bono 

But Seymour’s success in publishing the book became more visible when she pulled in heavy hitters from her address book. Launching in 37 Dawson Street to the national media and a guestlist of 500 friends, family, writers and former advertising colleagues, Bono launched the book. The question on everyone’s lips, then, was how does a self published writer- without the publicity machine of Harper Collins- pull in such a name?

The connection is through the U2 singer’s wife. Seymour has been close friends with the U2 singer and wife Ali for 14 years, coming into contact with Ali after working with Gavin Friday on Muc, flying pig / money box aimed at raising funds and awareness for Kosovo. Seymour had designed Friday’s marketing campaign. Impressed with Seymour’s savvy marketing and advertising skills, he put her in contact with Hewson, who was similarly trying to raise awareness for Sellafield. It was through Ali that she became friends with the U2 singer.

It seems to be sensitive topic for Seymour; though she’s willing to openly talk about her friendship with the power couple, she’s quick to quash the idea that she simply pulled in celebrity pals to push her book.

“When it came to launching the book, it wasn’t about badging on a celebrity. Now, look, of course, from a publicity point of view: you get the frontman of the biggest band in the world, it’s not gonna hurt, but it actually made sense: he’d read the book, twice, you know? He’d been with me on the journey. So it wasn’t like “you’re my pal and you’re famous will you launch my book?” He also gave me a blurb for the back cover of the book. So it would have been stupid not to ask him to launch the book.

“Bono asked about this story from day one. He loved the story- the pirate radio story, because U2 got a lot of their early singles played on pirate radio; it was a big part of how they got started here. And he asked what the story was about. He was always very interested, y’know, he’s amazing and she is amazing and he asked me a lot about the story and so did she. And I was coming to the end of the story, we were out one day- I can’t even remember where we were- and he asked “how’s it going?” and I said “I’m nearly there.” And he said to me “Would you like me to read it?” And he just offered. “Would you like me to read it?” They had been friends for years- I had never asked for any favours; I wouldn’t because they get so many people swinging out of them for things and they do so much for their friends…I just love their company their great people. I admire them- I admire their work ethic, they’re two of the hardest working people I know, they’re so good to all their friends, not just to me, and to the wider world, and they’re inspiring- both of them. I look up to them- apart from being my friends, they’re people that I look up to, that I admire as people.”

From Page to Screen

Bono’s tip of the hat to Beautiful Noise has given Seymour a launch- pad from which to get her novel out. Also showing a strong work ethic, she has two other novels on the go as well as a screenplay for the film adaptation of Beautiful Noise.

Optioned by Dundalk- born director John Moore (who recently helmed A Good Day to Die Hard), the proposed feature has received development funding from the Irish Film Board and has Damien O’Donnell (East is East, Heartlands, Inside I’m Dancing) attached to direct.

Soon, though, the clock that Seymour had first position herself towards at 10 am is nearing 12pm. Though I’m sure the self described “yapper” would probably continue talking, we part amid excited chatter as to the film adaptation and with a firm sense that Seymour’s world- beating drive and Hollywood glamour may soon find her a million miles away from Studio One.

In This Week’s @theirishpost: Helen Seymour Interview. A Front Page Feature in This Week’s Rí- Rá

Beautiful Noise: My interview with Howth novelist Helen Seymour published in this week’s Rí-Rá: The entertainment supplement of The Irish Post.

In this week’s Irish Post…my interview with Howth native, and first- time novelist, Helen Seymour

Hello one and all.

As I previously mentioned some weeks ago, I sat down with Helen Seymour and talked to her about her remarkable story as well as her novel ‘Beautiful Noise’, a coming of age story about three youths in early- 80’s Dublin brought together by a bus  crash and who set up their own pirate station, Studio One. The book has since been optioned by Dundalk director John Moore, who recently helmed the latest Die Hard sequel, ‘A Good Day to Die Hard’, starring Bruce Willis. Dubliner Damien O’Donnell, director of ‘East is East’, ‘Heartlands’ and ‘Inside I’m Dancing’, is attached to the project. Seymour, meanwhile, is currently hard at work on a screen adaptation of her debut novel.

A former Celtic Tiger High Flyer (a term she dismisses as “bizarre”), she entered into marketing and advertising at age 21 and, over the course of the next 17 years, built up a glittering reputation in the industry through her own company, which she ran herself.

At 38, the life- long ambition to write a novel showed no signs of dissipating and Seymour left advertising and marketing, moved back in with her mum and took a job waiting tables, part- time, at the local restaurant- where she still works to this day- to focus on writing writing ‘Beautiful Noise’.

Represented by literary super- agent Marianne Gunn- O’Connor and signed by Harper Collins, she left the publishing power house over disagreements about edits and decided to self- publish through Pencil.

Lauded by everyone from Roddy Doyle and Eoin Colfer to Bono (pictured, above), Seymour’s extraordinary rise is covered in this week’s Rí- Rá: the entertainment supplement of The Irish Post.

The Vaccines, live, at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, Monday, April 8th 2013

My review of The Vaccines live in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre was published in this April 20th 2013 edition of NME

Originally published in NME on Wednesday, April 20th 2013.

“I’ve been in Ireland for five days and I’m starting to feel the effects. You’re gonna have to help me out on this next one. I’ve heard you sing and I’m impressed.” So pleads The Vaccines’ frontman Justin Young before he and bandmates Arni Arnason, Freddie Cowan and Peter Robertson launch into 2011 banger ‘Post Break-Up Sex’ to an overwhelming display of bouncing bodies and mass sing- along’s. And yeah, Young’s voice sounds jaded from five days on tour in Ireland, which included a 3am headline slot at Dublin’s booze-fuelled Trinity College Ball. So much so that the bawling masses at the Olympia tonight almost down him out during the “that helps you forget your ex” bit of the chorus.

Ahead of the Londoner’s biggest ever shows at London’s O2 in May the big question is: do the The Vaccines have the necessary hooks, riffs and epic choruses to own an arean? Well, there’s probably nowhere else in the world where an almost even split of lads and ladies are jubilantly belting out the words “There is NO HOPE” as they do during set opener ‘No Hope’, which takes on a fresh potency in recession- stricken Dublin. The sounds of debut single ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’ follow, a song that’s pretty much on enormous chorus. There is, however, a noticeable dip as ‘Tiger Blood’ and ‘Wetsuit’ don’t quite capitalise on the explosive reaction to the opening tunes. The band sense it and rattle through them. making time to milk for the love for ‘Teenage Icon’, every bit the indie anthem. ‘Under Your Thumb’, meanwhile, initiates mass hand-clapping so loud and accurate it makes the air wobble. ‘I Always Knew’, though, is the most memorable of the night, as the crowd collapses in on itself under the strobe lights. So the songs are almost there. Releasing half of them as singles (11 of the songs from a total 22 across their two albums) has seen to that.

But it’s the swagger of lead guitarist Freddie Cowan that impresses most tonight. He oozes the charisma of a young Mick Jones, and with his jacket collar upturned, the younger brother of Tom from The Horrors is at his best when standing centre- stage during solos with his foot on a monitor, routinely throwing plectrums into the crowd. Young’s behaviour is in complete contrast to Cowan’s, and he’s seemingly taken aback by the reaction to the encore of ‘Wolf Pack’, ‘Bad Mood’ and ‘Nørgaard’. “The first time I played here, I was in a band that was supporting a band…Ireland seemed like a mythical place…it’s great that a band like us can come here and get this reaction.”

The Vaccines remain as potent as ever.

My live review of The Vaccines at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, in this week’s @NME

In this week’s NME…my review of The Vaccines, live in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre.

In this week’s NME…my review of The Vaccines, live, in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre

Hello one and all.

Just a brief note to tell you that I have a review in this week’s NME (20th April 2013, pictured left). It’s a review of The Vaccines, live in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre. It’s featured on page 52 of the magazine and it features some stunning live snaps from the very talented Lili Foberg. Available in all good newsagents, etc.

You can also read the full text of the review right here. If you’ve got an opinion relating to my review, by all means comment here.

Thanks and stay classy.

Lockout by Ann Matthews, The New Theatre, Dublin, April 16th, 2013

Ann Matthews’ Lockout: Now running at The New Theatre from the 15th – 20th April at 7.30pm.

Originally featured on Entertainment.ie, Wednesday 17th April, 2013.

Set during a time when Dublin’s working class were ensnared by chronic poverty, Ann Matthews’ Lockout offers a revisionist perspective on the role of women during the 1913 Dublin Lockout. Like the Abbey Theatre’s 2010 production of John Gabriel Borkman- Frank McGuinness’ version of Ibsen’s play about a corrupt and ruthless banker- Lockout also presents an allegory for events in contemporary Ireland.
Right from the opening, the tone and mood of Lockout is distinctly macabre and elegiac, made all the more so by a melancholic overture, performed live, downstage left, by a violinist. Standing, down centre, by a candle- lit table, we are introduced to Ellen Byrne, played by Alison Fitzpatrick, who is grieving the recent loss of a loved one, whose presence is marked by a coffin that lies, up centre, across a row of chairs.

Monologue- driven, the character of Ellen is the personification of the hearty, inner city Dub and dweller of- in her words- a “respectable tenement”. Writer Ann Matthews understands that in order to have darkness a play must also have light and Ellen’s monologue is peppered with witty turns of phrase (“A penny lookin’ down on two ha’pennys”) that are uniquely Dublinesque. Unfortunately, some- though not all- of these crafty witticisms are lost on an audience that has been strongly impressed by the overpowering atmosphere of grief and mortality that hangs in the air, stifling any comedic possibilities. Soon after, however, the audience moves on from their initial response to the gloomy stage atmosphere and the dimensions to Ellen’s character begin to seem more rounded and defined.

Further putting the social and political strife of the period in context, Liverpool- born James Larkin (Ian Meehan) and Glasgow- born James Connolly (Patrick O’Donnell) stand on stage left and stage right, respectively, at varying times throughout the 50 minute production. The strong accents of both Larkin and Connolly- two thirds of the co- founders of the Labour Party- neutralize the setting, mildly, their forceful rhetoric and leadership working well in contrast with Ellen’s warm, inviting tone. The role of women, however, is still pushed in the monologues of Connolly and Larkin, the latter making direct reference to the efforts of his sister, Delia Larkin.

Both Larkin and Connolly’s legacies are held in almost- unanimous high regard across political divides and, perhaps, by Lockout’s audience members. What, then, can we learn from Lockout about Larkin and Connolly that we don’t already know? The answer is little, frankly, and Matthews, clearly, understands this limitation. Instead, she presents us with two courageous, charismatic leaders whose virtues of character are matched by the unwavering strength of a well- written central character, brought to life by an eqaully nuanced central performance.

In the aftermath of The McAleese Report on The Magdalene Laundries and with growing discontent among disenfranchised Labour Party voters, Lockout is Irish theatre at its most vital.

Playwright: Ann Matthews

Director: Anthony Fox

Cast: Alison Fitzpatrick (Ellen Byrne), Ian Meehan (James Larkin), Patrick O’Donnell (James Connolly)

Lockout runs in The New Theatre from the 15th – 20th April at 7.30pm. tickets: €12 / €15. For more information go to www.thenewtheatre.com

‘Lockout’ is part of Dublin: One City One Book and is presented with the assistance of Dublin UNESCO City of Literature.