IT can take a long time for a person to find who they really are, and to discover their inner talents and abilities.
Take Sue Dukes. At 60, she is about to tie the knot, is renovating a farmhouse in West Cork, and has been enroled in an MA in Creative Writing Course at UCC.
Now Sue’s writing career has taken a big step forward, as she has been chosen to write this year’s Summer Soap serial for the Evening Echo.
Launched last year by the Echo and UCC and now an annual event, Summer Soap is a serial that unfolds over 12 episodes, every day from Monday to Saturday, over the course of a fortnight in this newspaper. Sue’s winning story, Personal Services, begins on Monday and was chosen after a process involving UCC’s MA in Creative Writing course and the Echo.
In the first chapter, readers will be introduced to a social commentary on the various people that pass through the hands of an enigmatic character, who isn’t quite what she seems...
It’s great for Sue, who has reinvented herself since moving to the Skibbereen area with her fiancé, whom she is marrying next month. The ceremony will take place in Cork city’s registry office followed by a few drinks and a few tunes with friends and family in the couple’s home.
Sue, currently completing her thesis for an MA in Creative Writing at UCC, and her fiancé, Robin Lewando, who is studying archaeology at UCC, are living lives that are truly authentic.
After years in what Sue describes as a dead-end job as an administrative assistant in Somerset, England, she is returning to writing, having written her first book when she was 30.
“I did it long hand while feeding my new- born daughter,” recalls Sue. “It was dreadful; a romantic story that never got published.”
Her second attempt was better and her third book got published. In all, Sue has had nine novels published with small publishers, including three erotic novels. Her ambition now is to write fiction with an element of psychological drama for mainstream publishers.
When she moved to West Cork, she hadn’t written for 20 years. “I was married but it wasn’t a very good marriage,” says Sue. “I had two children and out of sheer necessity, I stayed in my job. One has to feed one’s children and pay the mortgage.
“After a while, you just get weary and tired. You go home and have nothing left to give. When I stopped doing that full time job, I was able to think seriously about writing again.”
Robin came into Sue’s life when they met at an Irish music session in England. Sue plays a 200-year-old flute and Robin plays the fiddle. They had actually spoken to each other at another session when they were in their early twenties.
“We both went our separate ways, got married and each had two kids. (They now each have two grandchildren.) We were disillusioned when we bumped into each other all those years later.”
The second chance meeting was to be the beginning of a new and happier chapter in both their lives. Robin went ahead with his plan to move to New Zealand but kept in touch with Sue by email. When he told her there was a job going for a couple — involving milking cows — Sue immediately wrote a letter of resignation to her employers. “I was off. We worked in New Zealand for 18 months. It was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life, milking cows at four in the morning, watching the sun come up over the sea. It was just magic.”
Both Sue and Robin had been in West Cork before, and decided to move there, buying an old farmhouse which they are doing up.
“For the first six months, we lived in a bus outside the house. It has taken us six years to get where we are now, to make the house liveable. It needs a new roof but that won’t happen for a few years, we can’t afford it at the moment.”
The couple keep sheep, pigs and chickens and grow their own vegetables, trying to live as self-sufficiently as possible. As well as tending to their house project and growing their own food, Sue discovered three years ago that she wanted to write again.
“I’ve gone through various processes, going online and critiquing other people’s work while they critiqued mine. I’ve gone through some of my old books just to see whether I can make them better. It’s part of an ongoing process of self-improvement. It has really helped to give me a kickstart.”
The masters in creative writing “has taken away the horrible fear that I couldn’t write,” she adds. “I did wonder whether I could do it anymore. The environment is encouraging. I am now the person I should have been all those years ago.”
Sue admits the course is challenging. There’s the pressure to write on demand and to read widely. “But that’s what we’re all on the course for. Most of the people on it have had a whinge now and again about the course and the amount of books we have to read.”
But it has been worthwhile.
Sue says the main lesson she learned from the course came from writer and lecturer, Mary Morrissy. “She said that to write, you have to abandon all the rules. That’s what being a better writer is about. You do what you want to do rather than what you perceive as what somebody else wants you to do. My writing is different now to what it was in the past. It’s more academic, I suppose.”
Sue is currently working on a novel, the first part of which will be her thesis for the MA. “I will then carry on and finish it.”
It’s based on the legend of the selkie, a creature that lives as a seal in the sea and sheds it skin to become human on land.
Appropriate for Sue perhaps, who has shed her old skin and found a whole new life on the land in beautiful West Cork.
In the meantime, readers can begin enjoying Sue’s story Personal Services in Summer Soap from Monday. Evening Echo Features Editor John Dolan said it was a worthy choice to be published after a difficult judging process of the entries. “The standard was high and a second Summer Soap story will be published in August,” he said.
“Sue’s story is engaging and intriguing and will challenge readers’ perceptions about people. She draws wonderful characters and has a lovely turn of phrase. I’m sure readers will enjoy seeing the story unfold.”
“We’re delighted to see the second series of the Summer Soap going ahead this year,” says Associate Director of Creative Writing at UCC, Mary Morrissy. “Getting published is always a challenge for new fiction writers, so this is a great opportunity for our students to get into print and reach a wide readership.”
“The Echo is way ahead of the game running serial fiction — both online and in the newspaper. It’s a real innovation on the Irish journalism scene. The soap format demands great skill in writing in short bursts and keeping the reader hooked from day to day over 12 episodes.
“What both our student writers who have been commissioned this year have shown is a great sense of story coupled with a real feel for topical issues. Sue has gone for mystery in her story of a masseuse based in Cork who has a history few of her clients would guess at.
“Luisa Geisler is a Brazilian writer whose soap will be running in August. She has been studying in UCC for the past year, and writes about the pitfalls of a romance between a Brazilian woman and an Irishman, touching on the very current topic of migration.”