Interview with Louise Stern

INTERVIEW: Louise Stern is deaf, which makes her debut novel much more sharp and expressive, writes JOHN CRADDEN

THE SHORT STORY is a genre at which many Irish writers excel, but in the UK it’s said to be almost impossible to publish short stories if you’re a first-time writer. Yet 31-year-old American artist and London resident Louise Stern has managed to do just that with her first book, a collection of short stories published this month by Granta.

Chattering tells the stories of mainly young, restless men and women who test their desire for new experiences to the limit. Like the author, many of the characters are deaf, and communicate using one or a combination of sign language, lip-reading, note-scribbling, guesswork and instinct.

The book has already won plaudits in literary circles and among bloggers. Scottish novelist Alan Warner praised it as “an amazing debut . . . Already, some of these tales are simply masterful examples of the short story form.”

Having read the book in one sitting, I find myself wishing I could meet Stern in person, but since we are both deaf and divided by the Irish Sea, we talk via an online instant-messaging service. She confesses to being severely hungover on the morning of our chat, but any worries that this would end up a stilted, awkward interview quickly dissipate shortly after we start. The words pop up thick and fast on my screen.

Stern grew up in California surrounded by deaf people, including her entire family. She is the fourth generation of her family to be born deaf. Her parents were teachers at the California School for the Deaf at Fremont, where she and her siblings were pupils.

Based in London since 2002, her day job is as an assistant to artist and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood. But she has made her own art using mixed media, photography, video and, most intriguingly, a sculpture made of the scraps of paper she uses for back-and-forth written conversations with people who don’t sign.

She is keen to express ideas about silence, communication and the importance of language, particularly in how it mediates our relationship to the world. So while her work, including the book, is not necessarily about deafness or deaf people, “deafness is a great metaphor for that, for being away from language.

“I grew up with people who weren’t comfortable with language at all, but their experiences were intense but not recognised. Many deaf children grow up with hearing families who don’t know sign and refuse to learn, so they don’t have any language at all.”

Chattering isn’t quite Stern’s first foray into the written word, as she is also the founder and publisher of Maurice, a contemporary art magazine for children. “Maurice came out of my interest in concrete language. I was trying to use contemporary art as a concrete visual language to communicate.”

In the book, Stern writes in a style that is predominantly clear and concise, almost to the point of being plain. “By writing clearly and crisply, I hope I am depending on language less to convince my readers and more just relaying what is there.”

The stories are all about people whose lives briefly come together and then separate, mostly without any drama, moving on quickly to the next phase of their lives. Yet the characters and situations stay with you, even as you know their lives are moving on elsewhere.

There is very little dialogue, but lots of internal monologue and precise visual observations that convey peoples’ presences in a way I’ve never read before. It’s clear that being a native signer has allowed Stern to offer a perspective that is both piercingly insightful and startlingly new.

“With sign, the way you talk about your emotions is so different. It is a different relationship to the world, much less filtered through abstract concepts, although not less sophisticated. That has had a huge impact on my writing.”

On the other hand, and I wonder if it’s something to do with the short story format, the stories often seem inconclusive, or unresolved. But Stern has her own distinct reasons for liking the format. As a reader, she enjoys novels that are entertaining, but with those “where you try to get at something”, she says many of them have too much of an “over-arching narrative” for her liking.

“With the stories, I wanted them to be entertaining enough for anyone to like it, and not only literary sorts, but at the same time [I didn’t want them] to be complete worlds into themselves. But now I’m gonna try and write a novel next so maybe that idea will come back and bite me in the arse.”

Stern says she is proud to be deaf and loves the deaf community in which she grew up, but she often feels claustrophobic within it. “Most of my friends nowadays are hearing, to be honest. I can’t live in the deaf community wholly and I don’t think anyone should feel pressured to.”

But when I ask her has she gotten any reaction to the book from readers in the deaf community, she relishes the question. “Yes, they loved the stories. That means so much to me. They said they rang true, and this from people I barely dared to hope it from. It means the world to me.

“Hearing people’s responses mean a lot to me too, of course, but just in a different way, maybe more intellectual or something, I don’t know. But with deaf people, it’s where I come from. I really wanted to say it like it is.”

Chattering is published by Granta, £10.99

This article first appeared in the Irish Times

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Ultimate in depreciation-proof motoring

This, for many, is the archetypal banger. Classy, and goes on forever.

More and more of us are driving around in our shiny new cars with their super-duper year-10 plate. It’s apparently just about safe again to feel smug about spending some money.

Indeed, new car sales so far this year have already overtaken the dismal total sold during the whole of 2009, helped by the Government’s scrappage scheme.

Yet right now it is possible to feel just as smug driving a 10-year old banger, according to the author of a new book, entitled The Bangernomics Bible.

It’s full of tips about how to buy and run a ‘good’ banger for next to nothing, and was written by motoring journalist and former used car salesman James Ruppert. He says that there has been “a growing trend for car buyers to convince themselves that it is a matter of urgency to replace their cars every three years or sometimes less with another new car”.

What is bangernomics?

Bangernomics, by contrast, is about choosing to buy and run an older car, even if you can feasibly raise the money for a new one. Or keeping the car you have for as long as possible.

A large part of the logic is that once a car is five years or older, it has already lost most of its value and is therefore close to the bottom of its depreciation ‘curve’. This means you won’t lose anywhere near as much in depreciation as you would with a new or even nearly new car, argues Ruppert.

This point is not lost on Shane Teskey, managing director of car fleet provider Benchmark Fleet Services.

Being in the fleet business, Teskey has access to trade discounts and company cars. “But for my last three cars I’ve tried to buy it new and turn it around every year, which cost about €2,000 each time,” he says.

“However, the last new car I bought, in 2007, was a Range Rover Sport and it absolutely nose-dived [in value].”

He decided to finance it over a longer period of time, so as to try and spread the depreciation out.

“I’m three years in now. I’ve got about 45k outstanding on it and it’s now worth about 35k in the market. Not nice.”

Teskey has heard of bangernomics. “It’s an interesting concept but it assumes that the motivation behind buying a car is purely financial,” he says.

“There’s a lot of other emotional stuff that goes with buying a new car. For many, it’s a luxury that’s only afforded once every three or so years, and worth the pain in depreciation.”

A way of life

Ruppert takes a broader view. “Bangernomics is a way of life. Some people do just want a car as A to B and back again and don’t care what it is but don’t want to spend a fortune on it. They’d rather save up to go on holiday or buy a house or a new kitchen instead.

“Others may think, well I’d rather spend that money I save on a lovely old classic, or maybe to have a couple of characterful cars rather than some depreciating asset.”

Ruppert’s new book is an update of one he wrote in 1993 called Bangernomics.

Things have certainly changed since then. In the early ’90s a banger often meant driving a rough-running, battered shed, but the explosion in new car sales since then has done much to enrich the quality and choice of older cars.

And the prices of used cars have fallen so much that a banger today can now mean a car just out of manufacturer’s warranty, says Ruppert.

Beating depreciation

James Beecher from Cork is a bangernomics fan. He started buying bangers four years ago after leaving a job in which he had a company car.

“I like cars but losing a few thousand a year in depreciation doesn’t appeal,” he says. “Old cars do the job well and in some cases are nicer to drive and own than more modern ones.”

He currently drives a 1993 BMW 5 Series estate that cost just shy of €2,000, but also has a 1997 Rover 216 Coupe, which he bought for €800.

Beecher has managed to keep his losses to a minimum by selling his cars on after just a few months and getting something else. “Something interesting always comes along, a change is nice too and I enjoy having a small project on the go.”

In the last four years, he has bought seven cars that together cost him €10,000. Among the cheapest was a 1992 Mercedes E250 diesel for €430 and a 1993 Honda Prelude coupe for €850.

“If I bought one car today for €10,000, how much would I get back after four years?” he asks. “It wouldn’t be close to €10,000 anyway, more like €2,000 or €3,000, I’d imagine.”

Bring a tyre-kicker friend

Tomas Curley from Co Kildare is another long-time bangernomics fan but also an expert amateur mechanic.

“I think the raw bangernomics owner is actually a bit of a car enthusiast because they tend to know a bit about motors,” says Curley, who has recently picked up a 2001 VW Passat diesel for €500. “The vast majority, those without a bit of knowledge, have the potential to get stung.”

It’s no surprise to learn Tomas’s skills as a tyre kicker are in demand by his many friends and colleagues at the Intel plant in Leixlip, where he works. He has helped his co-workers to pick out good, reliable older cars while still getting change out of €3,000, or much less.

For most people, he advocates what he calls a “bangernomics-lite” approach, whereby you keep your current (say five- year-old) car and hold on to it for as long as possible.

Keep on running

Michelle Shanahan from Portlaoise runs a 1996 Nissan Micra she bought for €3,500 in 2002 with about 40,000 miles on the clock. She says it is still running sweetly eight years later at 134,000 miles.

The car is serviced once a year, and any minor problems she fixes herself with the help of her dad. It has only broken down once, and the fault was cheaply fixed with a replacement part from a scrapyard. She estimates it costs less than €600 a year to run in servicing, tax and insurance.

She has no plans to trade in, even with some of the attractive scrappage deals on offer.

“The way I look at it, it runs perfectly, does what it needs to and is worth very little to anyone else,” says Shanahan. “That whole concept of ‘why fix it if it’s not broken’, kind of fits the situation.”

Green bangers

Ruppert says running a banger for as long as possible is as green — if not greener — than buying a fuel-efficient new car because of the huge amounts of energy and resources required to build them. But what happens if you own a car that may be reaching the end of its life?

“Deciding when to change is the most difficult thing to get right, and anticipating when the big bills come is certainly down to luck half the time,” admits Ruppert.

“But too often I hear from people who say my car is five years old, has done 70,000 miles and is worn out.”

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Keep your smartphone costs down

JUST when you thought you had finally gotten to grips with how mobile phone charges work, along comes a device that adds a new dimension.

As well doing all the things a conventional mobile phone does, smartphones allow you to surf the internet and download data such as email, music files and specially-designed software applications while on the move.

Once regarded as a device mainly for business people, the huge popularity of models like Apple’s iPhone has done much to make smartphones extremely appealing to ordinary consumers as well.

Global sales data has shown that in the first three months of this year smartphone models accounted for nearly 20pc of all mobile phone sales.

Bill shock

However, there were a number of well-publicised cases recently of smartphone users being saddled with shockingly high mobile bills caused by unknowingly exceeding limits or caps set by their mobile operators for downloading data on their phones.

The most common cases arise when people use their devices to download data while overseas.

One of the best-known examples is of a German consumer who downloaded an episode of her favourite programme on her mobile phone while on holidays in France and came home to a bill of €46,000.

The European Commission recently updated legislation on ‘roaming’ specifically to protect consumers against ‘shock’ bills.

New EU laws on data roaming

Although EU laws on roaming charges have been in place since 2007, they didn’t include data and text messaging until July last year, when the Commission introduced a cap of €1 (excluding VAT) for every megabyte (MB) downloaded while abroad.

One MB is the same as around 200 emails without attachments, or less than an hour of browsing time, but only one minute of MP3 compressed music.

However, this cap didn’t prevent many consumers in Ireland racking up considerable charges for downloading data while on holidays or overseas last year, says Ann Neville, manager of the European Consumer Centre in Dublin.

The latest EU rule was put in place in March 2010, whereby operators must cut a customer’s mobile connection when their data roaming bill reaches €50 in a single month.

“Even with the protection of the cap on data downloading that was already in place, the introduction of a cut-off limit is necessary to prevent unpleasant surprises such as one case of someone using their iPhone as a sat-nav and incurring charges of more than €400,” said Ms Neville.

Take care

While this is all good news for smartphone users abroad, users should still take care, says Niall Kitson, editor of the digital consumer magazine ‘PC Live!’.

“Whatever about the price of calls skyrocketing when you call from a foreign network, charges for data vary significantly from network to network,” he said.

Downloading applications and music away from home will also “eat up your data allowance in no time”, says Mr Kitson.

“When I travel with my iPhone I make sure data roaming is switched off, and rely on Wi-Fi for data,” he says.

A Wi-Fi enabled device can connect to the internet when within range of a wireless network connected to the internet.


If you buy a smartphone, you may find yourself downloading more data than you might expect, so if you stick with your existing mobile price plan you should review it after a few months, particularly if you have gone overseas during that time.

Each of the four mobile operators here offer a number of different price options for downloading data, depending on whether you are a billpay or a prepay customer.

If you are a Vodafone billpay customer, you will get a monthly 2GB data downloading allowance if you pick a ‘data’ plan like Perfect Choice Access, but if you pick a standard plan you can buy an ‘add-on’ allowance of 1GB per month for €9.99.

O2’s Advance billpay smartphone plans also offer a monthly 2GB allowance but if you are on its standard Clear mobile plan you can buy an additional 250MB bundle for €7.47 extra per month.

Meteor’s Smart billpay plans include between 1 and 5GB of downloading allowance depending on which plan you pick, but an additional bundle of 250MB costs €4.99 a month or you can pay €14.99 for up to 10GB a month.

Three Ireland offers its billpay customers a monthly 1GB allowance for €9.99, unless they pick a plan that already includes an allowance.


If you are a prepay user, things are much simpler, but possibly more expensive. Vodafone, 02 and Meteor charge 99c for up to 50MB per day, and between €1-2 for every MB downloaded thereafter.

Three Ireland claims that its prepay customers get unlimited mobile surfing, but in reality this is subject to a ‘fair usage’ limit of 250MB a month, not to mention other conditions.

If you use the mobile internet a lot but on a prepay tariff, it may be worth switching to a billpay contract since you cannot generally buy downloading allowances for a fixed fee like you can on billpay plans.

The only exception is Three Ireland, which offers its prepay customers a 1GB allowance add-on for an extra €9.99 a month.

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent

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Have you ever been mugged by a deaf person?

I thought this was very original:

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Digital TV – pay or free-to-air?

There are at last some promising signs that RTE’s Digital Terrestrial Television service (DTT) will finally come about, even though the proposed commercial arm of the project has fallen flat on its face following the decision of the third and last-remaining consortium, Easy TV, to pull out. But if you still want to cut household costs but still have decent free to air multi-channel TV, you can do what some folk have been doing for a few years now: buy a satellite dish to receive the UK Freesat service (or cancel Sky and use your Sky dish) combined with a analogue or DTT-ready TV aerial set-up to get the Irish channels.  As with many things that sound too good to be true, there are some snags to bear in mind.  See Irish Independent article here

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Unholy smoke!


We didn’t have travel insurance while we were on holiday in France, during which the Icelandic volcano erupted. D’oh!

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Get your tax credits while they last

Tax credits seem to be dissappearing fast as each Budget passes- get yours now while they still exist. It’s super-easy to do online.

In the Irish Independent today

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Managing self-employed finances

Lots of people are becoming self-employed; some by choice while others have no other option due to redundancy or a change of contract terms. Here is what you need to know about managing your finances if newly self-employed.

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Post-framework pension planning

What do you need to think about with regards your pension plan now that most of us will have to retire at 68? Irish Independent today and here too.

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Machine vs human translation

Machine translation is getting better, but human translators will always be vital. In the Irish Times today.

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