The Southern Star, Saturday May 28th, 2011 - By Jackie Keogh
Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat in Eyeries has a perfect hostess in founder Sue Booth-Forbes
In the same way that a writer faces a blank page and an artist faces a blank canvass, the Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat centre in Beara is what you make it.
As part of The Beara Writing Experience, Sue Booth-Forbes, the American woman who established Anam Cara in 1998, hosted the recent Bealtaine Writing Retreat.
Led by local poet John O’Leary, Paddy O’Conor, who is a poet and former schoolteacher, and Peter Dunne, an Emmy-award-winning screenwriter, the weekend attracted a wonderful assortment of people who, with a little encouragement, shared their stories.
Sue’s life story is as interesting as any. Here, in this setting, she is the lynch pin. Aside from her editorial skills, she is the hostess with the mostest.
With grace, and seemingly unflagging energy, she moves throughout the day serving good breakfasts, producing flagons of coffee and homemade cookies, followed by hot buffet lunches, more coffee and cake, and dinner late in the evening, followed by even more conversation about books, music and ideas.
When one’s head is full of words, and one’s appetite is sated by the finest home cooking, and every pastoral view inspires, it is hard to describe how Anam Cara is a place of balm.
The best way to describe the centre – which is located on a quiet five-acre setting near the village of Eyeries on the Beara Peninsula – is that most people arrive here slightly fried.
People get fried by their jobs, the journey, other people, and some come battered by recent loss, transition, or upheaval in their lives. Others just want exactly what it says on the tin – a retreat.
Each of the well-appointed rooms has a theme: The Sunset Room is where the retreat’s vast collection of novels is kept and is beautifully tranquil in shades of blue.
Within minutes of throwing my bag on the floor, I had scanned the bookshelves and was salivating at the prospect of spending an entire week reading – just reading – the complete works of Flannery O’Connor, all of William Trevor, and Frank Delaney’s book Ireland – A Novel.
Another room – the Postcard Room – was named by former residents because the view from the window is a picture postcard glimpse of Coulagh Bay, the village of Eyeries and the mountains of South Kerry.
Another of the five rooms for residents is the Coulagh Bay Room, which is decorated in shades of lavender. This room is a repository for some of the books that people have read and kindly left behind for others to enjoy.
The Gallery houses the alumni collection, which rather surprisingly is a compendium of more than 350 books written by former artists- and writers-in-residence. The centre itself is also full of beautiful works of art produced by local artists and former artists-in-residence.
One of the books in The Gallery, Blood Runs Cold, by Alex Barclay, the Irish best-selling crime writer, is actually dedicated to Sue Booth-Forbes.
Alex Barclay finished her first novel at Anam Cara. Since then, she has returned many times, especially when she is close to finishing her latest work. For Alex, Anam Cara has become something of a ritual, a touchstone.
One more room that must be mentioned is Sue’s own office. It is a cubby, measuring about five foot by five foot that is always shaded by half-drawn curtains. It is from this tiered base in front of her computer that Sue runs the centre.
‘The thing I love about the cubby is that as I sit at the desk I am surrounded by objects that trigger memories of loved ones and the people who have stayed here,’ said Sue.
It is full of pictures of her family – her mom Naomi Barlow Larson, her dad the poet Clinton F Larson, her daughter Maren Booth Carneiro and her husband Jackson, her son Eric Forbes Paxman and his wife Vivi, as well her grandchildren, six-year-old Lucas and Liam, who is three.
Sue’s father, Clint Larson, was the esteemed poet-in-residence at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where Sue grew up with her sister, Diane. As a child, Sue said: ‘I watched my mother take very good care of my father and facilitate his writing.
‘She was the reason he was able to write,’ said Sue, who was surprised to find, a few years after she had set up Anam Cara, that she had followed in her mother’s footsteps.
Sue creates delicious food in a kitchen that she recently renovated in memory of her late mother. She has, in fact, gone so far as to christen her new Rangemaster cooker, ‘The Naomi B’, after her mother, who – in an interesting aside – completed her own memoir, A Poet’s Wife, with the assistance of Mary Jane Robinson, shortly before her death 12 months ago.
As if on cue, Mary Jane, who is staying at Anam Cara for a week, walked into the kitchen to help herself to the delicious roast coffee that is always on the go; she is followed shortly after by Peter who – in addition to his many talents – has been appointed chief coffee bean grinder and maker for the next two weeks.
There is more to Sue’s journey from there to here than imprinting: Sue previously worked as a Communications Director for a quasi-government think tank in Boston, working on pilot programmes to assist small- and medium-sized manufacturers.
Before that, at the age of 21, when she finished her Bachelor of Arts degree in English at Brigham Young University, Sue took her first job as an English teacher.
Sue taught school for eight years before moving to England with her then husband, and their two children where she got her first editorial job working for Cambridge University Press before re-locating back to the States.
In Boston, Sue worked for two business-related magazines before landing another job, working on English texts for the publishing giant Houghton-Mifflin.
‘It was an interesting time for me,’ said Sue, ‘because it brought a lot of my experience together in one job – teaching, editing and my love of literature.’ Sue was so encouraged by the experience that she decided in 1982 to start her company, Editorial Associates, Inc.
For the next decade, Sue helped businesses and publishing houses to produce their informational material. ‘It was a good business, and it taught me another aspect of self-reliance. I learned how to plan and run a business.’
Of her family background, Sue spoke about her great-grandfather, Robert Sweeten, who came across the US plains in a pioneer wagon to settle in Utah. To know Sue a little better, it is interesting to note that she grew up learning the pioneer spirit.
To this day, she can do such things as can goods, sew and sow vegetable gardens and bake bread. She learned every skill that a pioneer woman would need to survive and because her dad had ‘just the two daughters’, they also learned all the skills a boy would need as well.
Before setting up home in Ireland, Sue had, as already mentioned, worked as the communications director for a quasi-government agency, but around that time her friend, Claudia Harris – who is an English professor at Brigham Young University and had done her PHD on Irish theatre and politics – sent her a photograph from Beara.
Claudia had been visiting the actor Eleanor Methven – who was co-starring in the movie Falling for a Dancer that was being filmed in the area – when she saw the ‘For Sale’ sign on a house that she knew would be just perfect for Sue.
When the photograph came through the US Mail, Sue needed no further prompting and quickly arranged a visit to Beara with her daughter, Maren. Hand on heart, Sue said that when Maren crossed the threshold she turned to Sue and asked: ‘How do you negotiate a price for a house that already feels like home?’
Sue bought the house and started her new life in Ireland. Speaking candidly, she said: ‘The real joy for me is that I felt strong enough, and free enough, to come here and make friends. In coming to Beara, I wanted, first of all, to be myself authentically because truthfully I hadn’t been that for a long time.‘People were so warm and welcoming and accepting. Living here was a lot like growing up in Provo, Utah. So, you could say, that I got to come home again and got to do my life over.
‘I am happy in my life. I am happy I am doing what I am doing. I get great energy from the people who come here. I am an extrovert and extroverts get energy from other people. I couldn’t have a better life for myself if I had designed it myself.’
The fact remains: Sue has designed this life for herself, but she would be the first to admit she couldn’t have done it without the support of the community around her. She said: ‘People have been very generous in their acceptance of me, and their acceptance of the people who come to Anam Cara.’