Extraordinary Times: The innovative new novel by Rosemary Jenkinson

Extraordinary Times is a cutting-edge, literary thriller set in an imagined future in Belfast on the eve of a referendum on Irish unity. The novel wittily charts how six interconnected characters navigate the fortnight leading up to the historic referendum and are inadvertently caught up in a violent plan to disrupt the vote. While the narrative depicts a Northern Irish society trying to shake off its Troubles past, it also satirically deals with issues like race, gender, misogyny, drugs, ambition, lifelogging and celebrity. This is a powerful novel of our times!

Rosemary Jenkinson on Extraordinary Times

Last November, something happened that made me reel. My debut novel (A City Like No Other) which had already been accepted for publication by my publisher Doire Press was rejected out of the blue. The reason Doire gave was that, ‘You seem to have chosen to antagonise the majority of your Belfast peers,’ because of an article I’d written in Fortnight about Troubles writing. It reinforced on me the overreactive fickleness of the publishing industry and prompted me to think about branching out beyond its constraints.

But the key was to harness this setback into a new venture. It was the Belfast director Lynne Parker who once told me, ‘Don’t waste creative energy on being angry.’ Writing shouldn’t be about venting, but about inventing and I was determined to turn things around.

The next starting point for this collaboration with The Linen Hall Library was a news article last year about the composer John Cage’s organ piece As Slow as Possible. I read that the opening performance had been scheduled to last for 639 years with its next note released in February 2024 and I instantly thought, ‘Why don’t I know of writers doing this in literature?’ It inspired me to try and make my own work more longevitous.

At this time, I’d just finished writing my second novel Extraordinary Times which seemed similar to a Victorian novel in its scale and episodic, polyphonic nature. Writers such as Charles Dickens and Émile Zola used to have their novels serialized in newspapers and I could see no reason why this shouldn’t happen digitally today. It struck me that the predictive quality of Extraordinary Times, set as it is on the eve of a referendum on Irish unity, would make it perfect for serial publication.

So, there I was sitting on this highly topical novel with no outlet for it. It was true I already had a very supportive publisher in Arlen House, but Arlen was focused on publishing my short stories and plays. I was aware of the recent raft of non-fiction books on Irish unity and I desperately wanted to be the first author to have a novel published about the referendum. Time was ticking – which led me straight to The Linen Hall Library.

I’d found an enthusiastic home in 2020 for my archive at The Linen Hall Library and was previously involved in their extraORDINARYwomen project, so I had a strong instinct that they’d be open to new ways of publishing. Julie Andrews, Samantha McCombe and I discussed the project over lunch and, yes, wine was involved. We talked about sealing the manuscript in a box, so that I could no longer alter it – it’s ironic how thinking outside the box ends up inside a box!

Extraordinary Times has 32 chapters which guarantees that, at the rate of one chapter a year, the whole novel won’t be published until 2054, meaning my words are highly likely to outlive me – a strange but wonderful thought. It’s like being literally ahead of my time! However, I’m expecting a unity referendum to take place well before 2054 and, if so, the entire book will be digitally released to coincide with it. As for my fictional referendum, my lips are as sealed as the novel, save to say it will be interesting to see if fact merges with fiction.

It’s time to shelve (excuse the pun) the superannuated idea of an archive as a body of previously published works by a dead writer. I’ve always chosen posterity over prosperity and am delighted therefore to unleash this living futuristic novel into the world. Northern Ireland may be famous for ‘The Disappeared’, but the term can also be applicable in a literary sense to the legions of long-forgotten writers. The Linen Hall Library is at the forefront of ensuring that writers, and particularly female writers, will never again disappear from view.

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