Writers Chat 7: Aoibheann McCann on “Marina” (WordsOnTheStreet: Galway, 2018)

Aoibheann, Welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series and thanks for participating so fully.

Congratulations on your debut novel Marina which Mike McCormack has described (and I’d thoroughly agree!) as a “singular enchantment” and which also has a really stunning cover:

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Cover of Marina Purchase Direct from Publishers http://www.wordsonthestreet.com/

SG: First and foremost, tell me a little about Marina’s love of the sea.

The story seems to be about a circular journey from childhood to adulthood, and from Ireland to England, yet at another level, Marina seems to be a contemplation on how disconnected we all are from the land – dry and wet ground – that we live on and in.

You’re from Donegal and now living in Galway. Did you use your own knowledge of the sea and its landscape, and also that sense of being away from home (as Marina is in London) in writing this beautiful sensory novel?

AMC: Marina’s love of the sea is a theme throughout the novel, and it has a very strong pull for her. Throughout the novel, she associates the sea with escape, be it by boat or by swimming. Though when she eventually does escape across the Irish Sea, it does not work out so well for her. I think we are all very disconnected from the earth these days and that causes us a lot of problems.

I grew up beside the sea and was brought out on boats from a very young age. My family were mariners for generations so I have a deep generational connection with the sea. Luckily I still live near the sea in Galway and can see it out of my bedroom window. The further I get from the sea the more trapped I feel, but it also utterly scares me, as a lot of my relatives died at sea.

I lived in London for a number of years, my daughter was actually born there, and I although I loved the freedom of it, I always missed the sea and had a strong urge to return to Ireland. Especially when I was pregnant for some reason. I think I actually saw a mirage on a particularly hot day just before she was born!

The sea helped me to write the book too. I was inspired to write Marina in the aquarium in Salthill in Galway. I was looking at a fish in a seawater tank, it looked miserable, and this is where Marina sprang from.

SG: What an amazing image – you by the sea gazing at fish trapped in a tank, both surrounded by seawater…But then there’s all that history and inner knowledge you have about the sea that seeps through the novel. 

I loved the writing throughout In particular, I loved the poetic writing which grabs you right from the start:

“Belonging like they did when I saw them, floating in the sea, the green fronds of seaweed caressing their pale skin. They are nibbled gently, caressed by tiny fish who, bit by bit, ingest them, return them, welcome them.”

It also extends into the stuff of life – we’re told 

“The piano was truly the instrument of fate” 

and, when Jamie is born, he’s

“red and squashed, as if he’d come out of a shell.”

AMC: Thank you! I started off as a poet, in fact the first piece of writing I got published was a poem. Though I rarely write poetry these days, it is still there in my writing. I think the prologue and the intervals are the most poetic parts of the book, where Marina describes the world as she sees it in her very disjointed way. I was inspired to write these parts in my garden and walking by the sea. I think especially at these points I could see ordinary things from Marina’s perspective, and as she seems to be able to zone so completely into things and is so removed from social concerns, she is able to describe things more precisely or more poetically. I think poetry is about seeing things from a very different perspective.

SG: Yes! And now that you say it, that’s really what I loved about Marina – that sense of the word view being turned somewhat. 

I read Marina in one sitting and gasped when I came to the end – without revealing anything – it was like I was in the sea, coming up for air, or that a wave of a life of emotions had just washed over me. For me, this is a great reading experience, when you’re taken somewhere else entirely and then when the book finishes, you’re back to the grey skies (not unlike those of Marina’s life!) and reality. How important a role do you think atmosphere plays in this story – in keeping the reader embedded in the parallel clarity and murkiness of the waters of Marina’s thoughts, compared to Jamie’s thoughts which are shown as been numbed with medication?

AMC: Again, thank you, that’s great feedback for a writer! The first draft of the story didn’t feature the parallel story of Marina in the present, which I think provides the context of her version of the ultimately tragic events and her justification for what happened. It also adds to the atmosphere, as it is clear that her thoughts are murky from the start. Dr. O’Hara provides the clear voice of reason, but can be very harsh. I often think we put labels on people so we can rationalise their actions and there isn’t always a rational explanation for why people behave as they do. We like to think we can explain people’s behaviour by looking at their childhood but I don’t think we can. Of course, Jamie never really gets a voice, so we only have Marina’s (unreliable) version of the events, so we have to take her word for it. So overall I tried to make the atmosphere like the deep water that Marina inhabits in her mind.

SG: Yes. It saddens me how labels often seek answers yet in doing so can move further from those very answers. 

Marina is also about relationships. We have the one which is constant – Marina and her relationship to sea, including being at sea for most of the story – and we have the one which we, as readers, see evolving into something that isn’t quite what we would have hoped for Marina: her love for Jules, the young man she falls for at university in London. It’s really a question of like attracting like rather than opposites attract – especially if we consider that the less they verbally communicate, the less they each play their instruments. Can you talk a little about that relationship – in which Marina, at one stage, feels

“smaller than an ant”

 AMC: I think Marina and Jules’ relationship is ultimately very unhealthy and obsessional. It is further exacerbated by Sandra’s influence. I think Marina tries to find a replacement for Jamie in Jules, but also she feels haunted by what she feels is a betrayal of Jamie so I think she justifies Jules’ cruelty because of this.

Jules and his mother are very controlling. I think Marina feels smothered by this but the further away from the sea and her music she gets, the more trapped she becomes, and it takes something drastic for her to return to Ireland.

SG: We’ve talked about the role of the land in Marina, but of course there’s the wider question of the environment and how we are destroying it. Can you talk about how Jules and his involvement with environmental groups adds to that theme, indeed, perhaps this being the one of the first things that Marina learns about him is also what attracts her to him.

AMC: The environmental theme was always a big part of the book, though it isn’t really part of the plot. I thought about evolution a lot when I was writing the first draft: if we are so evolved as a species, why are we destroying the environment that sustains us? If you consider this, it actually explains Marina’s destructive behaviour and why she ultimately feels humanity isn’t all it is cracked up to be. There is a strand of psychology called eco-psychology which believes that mental illnesses are caused by environmental damage; if the earth is being destroyed, then we inevitably will be too. As it suffers, so do we. Also, I thought a lot about the Buddhist Wheel of Life, which shows evolution in the form of reincarnation; the more good deeds we do, the more likely we are to ‘evolve’ into a higher life form. Again, I thought, are we really a higher life form if we are destroying ourselves like this?

As for eco-warriors, I hung around with some at college, and they were always so sure of themselves and what they were doing. Jules’ character and especially those of his friends are inspired by them. My life experience is in no way like Marina’s, but I was asked to stop eating a Kit Kat in my own house by an eco-warrior! I think Marina is so lost and scared, she latches on to Jules as he seems so sure of everything, as do his friends. They see something wrong in the world too, and are better able to articulate this than she is.

Yes – these are all questions that I asked myself as I was reading and, more so, when I’d finished the novel, and, found myself understanding Marina’s behaviour.

Lastly, Five fun questions, Aoibheann:

Dogs or Cats? Dogs. I have two!

  1. Paperbacks or Hardbacks? Paperbacks.
  2. What page are you on of the book you’re reading now? 89 of Echoland by Per Petterson
  3. Describe the story in one word? Childhood
  4. What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile? The Invisible Ones by Steph Penny

Thank you for such insight, Aoibheann and I wish you much success with Marina. 

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 You can keep up to date with Aoibheann (above) on her website.

LAUNCHING MARINA

Little John Nee will launch Marina in the Town Hall Theatre, Galway on 19th April 2018.

Listen to Aoibheann reading from Marina in Athenry Library on 10th May.

 

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Writers Read: On “Vampire in Love” by Enrique Vila-Matas

NOTE: This post was first published on my blog in October 2016

There’s a radio advert for a book festival in Dublin which tells listeners that you never know what will happen when you open a book. The selection of stories ‘Vampire in Love’ by Enrique Vila-Matas is testament to this. Translated by the great Margaret Jull Costa and published by the innovate Andotherstories this collection showcases some of Vila-Matas’ finest stories. From the opening ‘A Permanent Home’ which is as unsettling as it is disturbing, to the witty ‘I’m not going to read any more emails’, the play with language and play on words forms a thrilling part of the read. The way in which Vila-Matas uses time to keep us (as readers) on our toes puts me in mind of the work of another Catalan writer, Jaume Cabré, and, of course, Roberto Bolaño.

 

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Vila-Matas has stated in an interview with the Paris Review that

What really interests me much more than reality is truth. I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures…

This interest is clearly evident in ‘Vampire in Love’ where the narratives flick and flash back and forth between reality and truth, with the questioning of perception prominent throughout the collection. Yet his use of language is also poetic. In one of my favourite stories, ‘Rosa Schwarzer comes back to life’, a sinister painting comes (or seems to come) to life, creating creates an epiphany moment for Rosa who is grossly unappreciated by her family.

The coffee brought her almost savagely awake, and, for a moment, as if it were a brief foretaste of what she would experience at the museum today, she saw in her mind the remote landscapes of that dark foreign prince’s country.

It is this beautiful mix of the every day sensory experience with the dreamscape seeping into the reality of both the character and that of the reader that I found so special. In another scene in this story we are presented with a picture of Rosa’s plummeting emotions where the landscape echoes her inner state:

The sky was a grubby opaque white colour, and, in her mind, a similar opaque whiteness began erasing the memory of what she had experienced with the night owl, whom she had abandoned in the park.

These emotions are later displayed  – though bluntly go unnoticed by her husband and sons:

‘What’s for supper?’ demanded her son Bernd from the sofa.

‘Death,’ she said. ‘Death.’

She said this so quietly, from the solitude of her kitchen, that they didn’t hear, just as they didn’t hear, at that same moment, a chicken having its throat slit.

 

Opening lines that hook you are another feature of the collection. Take this loaded first sentence (from ‘In Search of The Electrifying Double Act’):

One April afternoon some years ago, when my name was still Mempo Lesmes and I was very young and a starving, unknown actor, I got lost in the labyrinthine outskirts of San Anfiero de Granzara, and I came across a large mansion surrounded by an overgrown garden – the Villa Nemo.

Or consider the theme of memory that ripples through these stories: this from the fantastic tiny story ‘Indentifying Marks’ –

I remember nothing of that year except that elections were held, and someone, on a night that seemed to me interminable, swore blind that I was Catalan.

And the strong sense of place, from ‘Invented Memories’:

I remember that on my trip to the Azores, I visited Peter’s Bar in Horta, a café frequented by whalers near the yachting club; a mixture of inn, meeting place, information centre and post office.

For Vila-Matas, concepts of place and that never-ending search for something – in art, literature, cinema – as an integral part of the urban existence is often what drives the narrative arc. In the title story (‘Vampire in Love’) the vampire – our hero – thinks:

We look for distant people who are often to be found much closer to home; in movies, we look for the vampires that exist inside us.

The truth about people is often intertwined with history and place, as in the subtext of Franco’s Spain that runs through the chilling (yet at times amusing) ‘Greetings from Dante’ in which the father-narrator reveals his profound fear for and hate of his son whilst maintaining his fatherly role of trying to discover why the child – Tito – is mute. In conversation with a psychoanalyst the father discovers that in the sixteenth century, in their neighbourhood, a Portuguese student was revealed to be a demon when he was seen eating a bowl of flies. Unnervingly, Tito’s sister who is patient and understanding of his muteness often proclaimed ‘A shut mouth catches no flies’ and on this occasion (without knowing the history which the father has discovered) changes the proverb to ‘Tito’s mouth is full of flies.’ Violence ensues and so the story goes on – the mysterious sense of the streets taking in and then letting out evil pervades. Similarly in ‘Niño’, where the narrator/father maintains the position of the niño’s ‘attentive assistant’ despite the uncomfortable dislike for his son who, like him, in trying to survive, searches for the truth and attempts to face the void that is life (and death):

‘We’ll find out the truth about the beyond,’ he said.

‘Be careful,’ I warned. ‘Those who seek the truth deserve the punishment of finding it.’

The collection is also very much a writer’s book. I particularly loved the sense of voyeurism, obsessiveness and vanity that peppers the characters of Vila-Matas. In the fantastical ‘Modesty’ (my favourite story in the collection), we meet an occasional spy who, in this quote, is observing the No. 24 thief (so called because he operates on the No. 24 bus):

He doesn’t seem interested in any other route or any other bus. He must simply enjoy – as I do – being a regular, or perhaps he simply loves doing the same thing over and over. He’s not unlike me in a way: we are both of us thieves. Of course, he steals wallets and purses, while I only snatch phrases, faces, gestures…

In ‘Death by Suadade’, the narrator recalls – when he was nine – how the growth of curiosity about where he lived, and what made the place itself became his sole occupation:

The street began to steal a whole hour of my homework time, an hour that I recovered thanks to the simple method of cutting down the time I usually spent after supper reading great novels, until the day came when the charms of the Paseo de San Luis proved so alluring that they stole all my reading time. In other words, the Paseo replaced great novels.

I also recall spending hours – at a little older than nine though – staring through open windows, imagining the lives of others.

I read the collection from start to finish, and although many of the characters seemed to have merged into one by the time I had finished, on reflection it is the emotional weight which carries the book. Ultimately it is the re-imagining of the lives of ‘the other’ and of others that this story collection presents to the reader. ‘Vampire in Love’ is a book which gives us an escape; enabling us to dive into the pages, the minds, and the lives of characters who might well have come from our own dreams.

You can order ‘Vampire in Love’ here and see an interview with Vila-Matas and Paul Auster here.

Writers Chat 6: Lisa Harding on “Harvesting” (New Island: Dublin, 2017)

Writers Chat with Lisa Harding, shortlisted for Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award…

Lisa, Welcome to “Writers Chat” and congratulations on the much-deserved accolades Harvesting (New Island, 2017) has been receiving, including being awarded The Kate O’Brien Award (2018), short listed in the Newcomer section for Irish Book of the Year in 2017 and now shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award (winners announced on May 30th in Listowel)

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SG: Firstly, Lisa, let’s talk about the many stories behind Harvesting and what drove you to take on such a harrowing and emotional journey with your two strong female narrators Sammy and Nico.

LH: The book came about because of my involvement in a campaign called Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People run by the children’s Rights Alliance and the Body Shop. At the launch of that campaign in 2012, I was invited in my capacity as an actress to read first-hand accounts of some of the girls who had been trafficked to Ireland. What shocked me was how prevalent the trade is, how young some of the girls are and also that some of the girls that fall into the rings are Irish. Up until that day I had no idea this trade was happening on our shores.

It took me three years before I allowed myself to start to write about the topic. I struggled with legitimacy around telling these stories: who am I to give voice to these girls’ experiences? I am not an expert, nor a survivor, but something had burrowed inside me and I genuinely felt haunted by the testimonies I read that day. I found myself unable and unwilling to forget, and so set out to give voice to these hidden victims of this dark, flourishing world.

Sammy and Nico, although purely fictitious character, are composites of some of the personal accounts I was furnished with.

SG: I think that is why both women come across as such authentic characters. Now tell me about your process – in getting into the psyches of these women, in being able to so aptly explore their inner and outer worlds. Did you find that your experience in play writing and acting helped? I’m thinking of scenes, for example, where Sammy says “I empty out inside and allow myself to go floppy” (p.209) or Nico when she reminds herself before she takes the man’s stray hairs: “If I don’t breathe I’m not really there, not really.” (p.213)

LH: I adopt an improvisational approach to any creative process, which is greatly informed by my training as an actress.  I always start with a voice, and if I feel I can channel that voice, step inside the character’s skin, fully embody it, the writing will flow naturally from there.  Initially I didn’t know Harvesting would be a novel, the form was mutable as I was allowing different voices space inside my head. It could have been a play, or a series of interconnected short stories, but over time two voices start to clamour for more attention and space on the page. The consciousness of Sammy and Nico felt more alive and embodied than any of the other characters. The novel is in essence a series of alternating monologues told from the perspective of an Irish girl and a Moldovan girl.

As Harvesting is written in the first person present tense, everything that happens to these girls is being experienced and written about in the moment. The process of writing in this way is rather like channelling, where you bypass the conscious mind, or the intellect as much as possible and give yourself over to your instinct.

SG: Oh how wonderful that you felt free enough to let the narrative evolve and become the form it needed to become to tell the story. Lisa, let’s consider the role of place in Sammy’s Dublin is both her anchor and the city which fails to save her, while Nico’s Moldova fades as Dublin – what she is exposed to as ‘Dub’ – engulfs her. It seems Sammy and Nico both loose who they are and where they’re from simultaneously.

LH: That’s a really interesting observation, and not one I was consciously aware of at the time of writing. For Nico, the natural world was her home, growing up in a rural Moldovan village where her favourite activities were climbing trees and swimming in the rivers. Suddenly she is wrenched from this environment, the only world she ever knew, and is transported in cars, boats and planes from Moldova to Italy to London to Belfast, then finally Dublin. She is disoriented and dislocated early on. She regularly reverts to her favourite childhood spots in the moment of trauma where she dissociates from herself and her actual environment. I imagined her focus was slightly blurred in a bid to protect herself and so Dublin is experienced as a characterless place that could be anywhere. She only sees the inside of the holding house and the inside of a car and the inside of bedrooms. She yearns for nature yet has no direct contact; all she sees through fogged up windows is grey skies and rain.

Sammy is a suburban Dublin girl, so her environment is less alien, but her experience is. They are both brought to a ghost estate and their life of entrapment is played out against the backdrop of private parties, convention centres, bars, hotels. I felt if I was looking out on their world in their particular emotional state it would be heightened, bizarre, terrifying. Even those environments that were previously familiar take on an outlandish, almost ghoulish quality.

SG: Without revealing anything, Sammy and Nico start off and end in very different places. Between their beginnings and endings in their relationship we encounter moving tenderness, humorous quips while they each try to protect and provide some sort of comfort – and even love – each other.

LH: My two main motivators for writing this book were: (1) How can this happen? And (2) how do the girls survive and assimilate this sustained level of abuse? This second question feeds into your observation about their relationship, which is intense, at times verging on the hysterical. They are teenage girls who form a fierce bond under siege. I fell in love with the two girls as they navigated an unlikely friendship that becomes their everything. In each other they find humanity in a brutal, uncaring world. I was surprised how both girls use humour to deflect, protect and ultimately bond. But then, I realised they are so young and so impressionable and they need that ferocious love and loyalty to survive.

SG: I love how, at times, your writing is stark – factual almost – and then, also beautifully poetic. Nico describes the pain of two sisters as “palpable – it beats in the air like injured birds, trapped” (p236) and in another scene “I squint and blur my vision, but cannot see a rescuing knight no matter how hard I try.” (p281)

Sammy, locked inside on a day that seems particularly long tries

“not to listen to the bird-song, which I can hear over the wind and thrum of the tumble dryer. She’s so loud and insistent for such a tiny thing. I know, I know, I get it, birdie, but shut the fuck up, will ya?” (p242)

Do you think using different styles and language to convey changes in emotional tempo shows us that in the most awful of circumstances there is often – though unfortunately, not always – a glimmer of hope?

LH: That’s a really lovely compliment, thank you! Again, an unconscious lucky accident,  although I imagine my history in theatre fed into that melding of styles. Writers like Tennessee Williams, and in a completely contrasting way Sarah Kane, bring poetry, lyricism and a heightened sensibility to experiences of brutality. The lives Sammy and Nico are living are so far removed from the norms of the everyday that I felt colloquial language couldn’t always express their complex interior lives. They are so outside themselves and unable to process what is happening to them in the moment that I did struggle at times to find words to express this turmoil. Music could perhaps better express this turbulent inner landscape of trauma. I guess in some ways, heightened theatrical or poetic language can offer a kind of transformation, or transmutation, so perhaps unconsciously this was what I was playing with.

Yes, hope. I felt the fact of them being alive and capable of loving each other meant there was always hope.

SG: You participated and read from Harvesting as part of a symposium on modern slavery in Armagh on March 8th. How powerful do you think writing can be in today’s world where brevity is king?

LH: That was an extraordinary event. It was humbling to realise the importance of the role of the arts in raising awareness. The organiser of the symposium had come across Harvesting some time ago and was moved to organise an entire event on modern slavery because of his experience reading the book. So, I guess we cannot underestimate the effect of writing, even in such a time-poor, social-media saturated climate where Netflix is king. I imagine a visual medium might have even more impact, but then we lose the intimacy and interiority that only the novel allows.

SG: I think the key is that the novel form encourages or even demands self-reflection from the reader after it’s been read – in a way that other forms don’t.

Lastly, Lisa, some fun questions:

What are you reading now? Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante.

I read that over Christmas – in one sitting – and really loved it. Both disturbing and beautiful.

What’s your go-to dinner? Stir-fry with veggies. I’m a terrible cook!

Well stir-fry sounds delicious!

What writing are you working on? A new novel about the generational impact of alcoholism and the limitations of recovery.

Oh, the limitations of recovery. I’m intrigued.

What’s next for you? The above novel, and then…hopefully others. I’m a newbie in love with the form.

Sounds like you’re on a roll, Lisa. Keep on going!

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Thanks again for popping over for the sixth “Writers Chat”. I look forward to reading more of your work over time and wish you more of the very best with Harvesting which can be ordered here. 

Writers Chat 5: Patrick Chapman on his debut novel “So Long, Napoleon Solo” (BlazeVOX Books: NY, 2017)

Writer Patrick Chapman talks to me about writing, characterisation, titles, authorial intention and the role of place, era and music in novel writing…

I’m delighted to bring you a fifth WRITERS CHAT where Patrick Chapman talks to me about writing, characterisation, authorial intention and the role of place, era and music in novel writing…

Patrick, you’re very welcome. You’re a much-published and critically acclaimed poet and writer but today we’re going to focus on your debut novel So Long, Napoleon Solo (BlazeVOX Books, 2017). Congratulations on the publication and the fabulous cover which has such a nice texture!

PATRICK: Thank you, Shauna. The cover is meant to evoke pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s, though this is a modern story. The style is a hint at the spy stories of the protagonist’s childhood.

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       Buy So Long, Napoleon Solo

SHAUNA: Oh yes, I can see that in the cover. A nice touch and a push towards the physical copy rather than the digital. Patrick, having published seven collections of poetry and two books of stories, written for TV, film and audio drama, and worked in advertising – how did you come to turn to the long haul of novel writing? Was So Long, Napoleon Solo always destined to be a novel or did it start life as something else?

PATRICK: So Long, Napoleon Solo was always going to be a novel, but I took a poet’s route to writing it. That’s to say, the book was composed without a plan, and along the way it yielded other pieces as I followed paths that didn’t end up belonging to the story at hand – a novella, Anhedonia, published four years ago, and a few short stories, all came off the flywheel as I whittled the novel down to its core. When BlazeVOX said yes last year, I enjoyed a few months of final editing, which gave the book its finish. So it was a long haul, but I loved the process of it.

SHAUNA: That’s the key with novel writing, isn’t it – you’re in for the long haul, however that ‘long’ is. Well, as writers it is often difficult to express that which cannot be expressed and one of these acts is that of suicide and the grief that follows. Having explored this in novel form myself, I understand how complex and delicate a theme it is. Although the death of Tom, an old childhood friend of our hero Jerome (“a sensible coward”) is pivotal to the whole narrative, So Long, Napoleon Solo isn’t really about suicide – I found it to contain a steady meditative thread on what we understand friendship to be, and how it changes over time and over our lives.

PATRICK: Friendship – its various forms, and how it evolves with time and circumstance – is definitely a theme of the novel. Some friendships calcify, some flower. Some were never how you remember them, or what you expected them to be.

Tom kills himself before the book begins, but the relationship he had with Jerome, is frozen in Jerome’s memory as that which they shared as boys. We only have our hero’s word for what it was actually like.

This novel went through the stages of grief, and came out the other side. In the composition, it seemed important to write fearlessly – not treating the subject of suicide with kid gloves but allowing it space to be what it is: imponderable at first and catastrophic yet human and, to my mind, having been around quite a few of them, eventually understandable and forgivable. Also there are one-liners in the book. I wanted this to be a black comedy, which is how it turned out.

SHAUNA: In the humour – some of which had me laughing aloud (“Humanity was turning into a species of mugwumps in suits”) there are some very poetic portrayals of emotion, such as the description of Tom’s mother Betty at his funeral:

Betty now bawled openly, a Magdalene of sorrow and no one’s feet to wash with her hair.

PATRICK: Humour can be how we cover our inability to face sorrow. Jerome deals with his – unacknowledged at first – using cynical humour; his character strengthens and deepens as the book goes on, and as his life crystallises into something new. Jerome’s armour is stripped away and he finds another way of facing his demons, which I won’t spoil, but he first has to get good at confrontation. This backfires amusingly on him. As for his sorrow – once laughter fades, the darkness in the face of which it sounded, wraps around him like a cloak and he has to find a way to wear it that looks good on him.

SHAUNA: Yes there is that depth of sorrow throughout the novel. But So Long, Napoleon Solo is full of journeys – from childhood to adulthood, regret to acceptance, blame to forgiveness. Jerome constantly balances himself on the tightrope between conforming to society’s expectations and being free.

In Dublin “his other pals had long since drifted away into fatherhood, depression or success”. Clea discouraged him from getting to know other women, as she had “put a lot of work into him.” And at home in the countryside he muses how the people

raced to become exactly the sort of people they were expected to be, then they could stop evolving and have done with it.

Tell me about the formation of this complex character that I found myself both loving and despising in equal measure.

PATRICK: Jerome’s character at the beginning of the book, is formed out of an idea of himself that he’s constructed in order to be able to get on with things. His attitude to his past is a way of distancing himself from who he used to be. It’s a protective layer he hasn’t learned to live without. As for his smart mouth, he’s projecting, and compensating for his own sense of isolation. There’s tenderness in his view of his upbringing, but pain too. His hometown is to him the place where his friend killed himself, and where the people who bullied him as a child, now exist in a hell of quiet desperation, at least to his mind. In fact they’re perfectly normal humans. Eventually, Jerome learns that everyone is lost and for some that’s not a problem, as they don’t realise it.

SHAUNA: This next question has two parts. 

Firstly, the novel is primarily set in Dublin and I loved how, through Jerome’s life, we see the streets, bars and cafes grow high, fall, as the Celtic Tiger comes and along with it greed, homelessness, prosperity, all the contradictions of a city that is essentially not quite grown up – like the ever nostalgic Jerome.

On the top floor of a house near Portobello bridge, he had taken his first taste of Red Lebanese, Leonard Cohen and nakedness with a woman, all in the same night. The hash had made him high, the music had made him smile and the woman had made him coffee in the morning.

Do you think So Long, Napoleon Solo is as much about Dublin as it is about its characters?

Secondly, as much as the city, the music guides both the reader and Jerome towards maturity and, as he finally lights a cigarette like a man, he smokes “pulling the future into his head”. I’d have loved a CD to accompany the novel!

PATRICK: The story was written during the boom years, but it’s not a ‘Celtic Tiger’ novel per se. That said, the city in which it’s set is very much the Dublin of that period – a new-money metropolis, a place that thinks it’s cosmopolitan but that will never be New York. It doesn’t wear its worldliness lightly. There’s an incuriousness in some of the background characters, along with a certain herd instinct at large upon the world, a movement towards conformity that Jerome disapproves of. He thinks himself outside all of that but really he doesn’t understand how everyone else seems to know what to do.

As for music, the songs of Jerome’s youth act as a comment on his not being able to reveal his small-town character. They represent his authentic self; he hides these albums from his city friends. When Ro turns up with her ‘anything goes’ attitude, she’s much more relaxed than he is, in music as well as in other areas. She couldn’t care less what he likes or doesn’t like. She has bigger problems. Real life is what’s playing on her Discman (the book is set just pre-iPod).

In lieu of a CD, here’s a Spotify playlist of some of the music and artists featured in So Long, Napoleon Solo

SHAUNA: Oh fabulous! I shall look forward to listening. Now on the topic of characterisation it struck me that the expression of female sexuality seemed often to be as an antidote to male power, in particular, how Clea and Ro are portrayed in relation to Jerome. Of course the narrative of So Long, Napoloen Solo is written from a close third-person perspective so we’re looking at these – at times very strong – female characters through the eyes of Jerome. In a way, I also couldn’t help thinking that Clea and Ro were extensions of different versions of Jerome – almost like you see couples begin to look like their dogs or each other. Did you envisage this interconnectivity for your characters?

PATRICK: Ro is used to taking what she wants sexually, as is Clea. That’s not to say that what either wants is particularly wild, though there’s a scene where Clea does something to Jerome that might raise certain eyebrows today.

In the sense that all characters represent aspects of their author, there is a relationship between these three, and they do reflect each other but they’re individuals. Ro is not a ‘manic pixie dream-girl’, yet she arrives as part of a world of anarchy that opens for Jerome. She’s tougher and more robust than that label, and she is not at all about the guy. There’s a strength to her, a recklessness, as well as frankness and kindness. Though she’s in a mess, she’s on more solid ground than at first it appears. Clea is witty and sophisticated on the surface but having had adventures in her youth, she now tends towards the conventional. She represents a certain kind of accommodation people often make with intolerable domestic situations, out of fear, a desire to fit in, or a sense that there’s no way out.

One thing these two characters have in common is that, although they see Jerome as a human being, neither takes him seriously as any kind of traditional male ideal. That’s liberating for everyone, as he doesn’t see himself that way, either.

SHAUNA: Yes, that’s what I thought – we see more of Jerome through Clea and Ro. Much of our curiosity in life is about finding the answer to This comes through very strongly in your novel, Patrick. Jerome wants desperately to find out why Clea can possibly go back to Harry when he is abusive towards her; both Jerome and Ro spend much of the novel trying to find out why Tom killed himself; and Jerome, like all of us, is a man constantly searching for meaning. In a way, isn’t the act of writing part of this search, part of the why?

PATRICK: Writing is all about ‘why’, as much as it’s about ‘what happens next’. It can be cathartic for the author to write in search of an answer but the journey needs to resonate with a reader – the writing becomes all about telling a good story. In this book, as in life, not every question has a clear answer, which is intentional. I try not to close the circle. For instance, what does the word ‘England’ mean, towards the end of the novel? A whole new world, perhaps.

SHAUNA: Although we never get to meet Tom, we get to know him through flashbacks and memories of those who knew him in life. Innocent play becomes tainted with adult knowledge and reason and in the light of suicide a simple childhood friendship takes on a heavy weight. Life is full of phases and people often pass through one phase, disappear and reappear in another phase. Friendships come and go. I couldn’t help wondering that if Tom hadn’t killed himself would Jerome even remember him?

PATRICK: Every now and then, Jerome would remember Tom as someone he had known long ago, a signifier of a different time, an imaginary friend which, in a way, is what he becomes in our story. Tom is more powerful as a memory. If he had turned up in person, we wouldn’t have this set of events. It’s a twisted memory too – what Tom leaves behind is poisonous and nuts, and the effect it has is transformative. You have to ask if reasonable people would take up the challenge of it the way Ro and Jerome do, but in this situation they’re not entirely reasonable. It’s an emotionally heightened reality for these characters.

SHAUNA: Yes, I felt that much of the pace of the book was driven by the heightened emotion of the characters. Finally, Patrick, let’s move to the title. As a young boy Tom is given a gun by a slightly dodgy uncle and he and Jerome decide to address each other by their secret names – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – taken from the characters of the 1960s US TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Do you think there are different interpretations of the story depending on the reader’s knowledge of The Man from U.N.C.L.E and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E? (Here I need to confess that though I’ve not seen either programme, my lack of knowledge did not affect my enjoyment of the novel.)

PATRICK: The reader doesn’t need to know these shows (or the recent movie) to enjoy the novel. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is important only in that the two boys played at being those spies, and it’s clear soon enough in the story who Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were. As for the title, So Long, Napoleon Solo was inspired by my admiration for two other books with ‘So Long’ in the name. So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell and So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish, by Douglas Adams. As a phrase, it didn’t show up in Google searches until Robert Vaughn died, so it seemed like a good one.

SHAUNA: Thanks so much, Patrick, for being so giving with your responses to my curiosity. I must look up those two books you mention.

I wish you much success with So Long, Napoleon Solo! 

READERS: Check out the track list to the novel and purchase Patrick’s novel here.

You might also be interested in Patrick’s poetry published by Salmon Press and you might like to read an article Patrick wrote for Writing.ie about So Long, Napoleon Solo

 

Chapman

 

Writing News: New Fiction in Crannóg 47, Spring 2018

I’m delighted to have a new story – ‘Thirty-Five-A-Night’ – in the Spring 2018 edition of the brilliant Crannóg. 

Head over to Crannóg website to order your copy of Crannóg 47, 100 pages packed with fiction and poetry from 42 writers such as myself, Brian Kirk, Richard Halperin, Ciarán O’Rourke, Karla Van Vliet, Lisa C Taylor etc. Also, there’s an author interview with Alan McMonagle. And wonderful cover art: Flight 126 (Stars) by Ruth McHugh.

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Writers Chat 4: Nuala O’Connor on “Miss Emily” (Penguin: USA and Canada, 2015) and PREVIEW chat about “Becoming Belle” (Forthcoming from Penguin)

Latest “Writers Chat” – preview chat about Nuala O’Connor’s “Becoming Belle” and re-post of our Q&A about “Miss Emily”

The fourth post in my “Writers Chat” series is mix of old and new chats: a re-post of a chat with Nuala O’Connor from August 2015 on her third novel Miss Emily and a new preview chat about Becoming Belle which Sebastian Barry has declared to be “luminous”. Becoming Belle will be published in August 2018. 

BB USA cover

What a beautiful cover, Nuala. So tell me about this stage in the publishing process – after the writing, editing, and proofs… and before the publication date (August 2018).

NUALA: This is the easy part because all the difficult work is done. Now it’s time for gentle pre-publicity (sending out advance copies to key people: journalists and literary types of all hue) before the real PR push starts. I’m taking a week out in May to write articles, essays etc. about the book for promo purposes; I’m hoping by devoting a week to it, that I’ll get a lot done. It’s a time consuming business. I won’t be able to write much on my novel-in-progress during the promotional months for Becoming Belle. That’s maybe the only downside as the act of writing keeps me balanced in myself. And sane…

The story of Belle sounds utterly fascinating. Tell us how you came to write about her and her links to Ballinasloe.
NUALA: Like a lot of things, I tried her out first in a poem (a pretty crappy vilanelle). Then I wrote a flash about her. When I keep returning to a subject, it’s begging for more. I moved to Ballinasloe 13 years ago and researched the history of the town and soon came across this music hall girl who had married the local Viscount amid some scandal. She was a beauty and much loved in Ballinasloe; I was interested in knowing more about this maverick English woman who ended up in rural Ireland as the Countess Clancarty, despite being a dancer and not being from gentry.
When can we get our hands on Becoming Belle
NUALA:  It is published here, there and all over in August 2018. I really can’t wait for people to read about Belle – she is feminist, feisty and fresh. I gave my parents an advance copy of the book and my Da said he ‘fell in love’ with Belle. What better review could you get?
Wow, that is surely the best review any writer could get – that your reader falls in love with your heroine. I can’t wait to read it in August 2018!
Nuala OConnor 4
*****

Q&A (originally published in August 2015) with Nuala about Miss Emily 

*****

I start this blog post with a confession. I have always considered my tastes to reside in the modern. Miss Emily, set in the late nineteenth century however, is written in O’Connor’s beautiful lyrical prose with feminist leanings. The novel not only brings us into the world of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, but also Ada Concannon, a feisty Dubliner who follows in the footsteps of her aunt and uncle in the hope of better prospects in Amherst, Massachusetts.

I raise my hands, humbly, and declare that I was hooked from the first page with the complex characters of Emily and Ada, the lush imagery and bountiful senses, and a story that, from the start, gets you asking questions, and reading on. As a fan of Dickinson’s poetry, Miss Emily gave me a unique glimpse into her sense of self as a writer. Many of Emily’s sections are poetic in themselves, beautiful prose. Consider these musings, for example:

“I write by night now, when nothing thrums but my lamp…The house sleeps; Amherst sleeps. Only I endure. And when my pencil tires of flicking word arrows onto the page, there is the moon to admire, full-faced and lovely, a bright coin…”

Miss Emily, however, could also be enjoyed and relished by readers not familiar with – or even interested in – Dickinson as a writer. Here’s quite an accomplishment: O’Connor manages to hook you into this well-paced story while also providing convincing and fascinating glimpses into the life – imagined – of such a known poet.

MissEmily_On-Beach

 

Thank you, Nuala, for a wonderful read – on a northern Spanish beach (as per above photo!). I’m delighted to be part of Miss Emily Blog Tour!

There is a wonderful sense of place in Miss Emily from the Dublin Liffey and life as a maid downstairs to the workings of the kitchen, the stables, and herb garden in the Dickinson household in Amherst.

“The goddess Pomona has been around the orchard scattering her goodness: everything is floral and abundant, while the apple maggots and cabbage worm do their best to undo it all.”

The sense of place – and the atmosphere throughout the novel – seems to me to be as connected to the characters – Ada and Miss Emily – as it is to their respective countries – Ireland and America. In some way, Ada echoes Emily’s attachment to the indoors, how rushes of homesickness hit her at times. It strikes me that Miss Emily is not just about Emily Dickinson.

NUALA: Ada, the young maid, is the active character in the story, given Emily’s reclusiveness, which is beginning to be her preferred state by 1866, when the novel is set. The novel is about cross-generational friendship, the maid-mistress relationship, emigration and loyalty. It’s also about what it means to be a female maverick in the nineteenth century and what the consequences of that can be. And, yes, it’s about place – setting is important to me in fiction. For my own sake I need to inhabit the places I write about and really feel the setting loom large around me. The research for that – flora, fauna, architecture – is part of the thrill of writing for me.

I was enthralled by the day-to-day detail of living, and working – of course reflected in the beautiful covers of the US and UK editions, and in the novel from the instructional gift Ada receives from Mrs Dickinson (The Frugal Housewife by Mrs Child) and all the advice it gives, to the vision of Emily Dickinson lowering a basket full of delicious gingerbread for the children. Did you have fun researching and playing around with historical details such as these?

 NUALA: The research was a joy. I research as I write, mostly, and unearthing new and interesting details about domestic life in the nineteenth century was always a pleasure. I baked Emily’s recipes, I bought myself an old glass churn and made butter, I (squeamishly) watched YouTube videos on how to skin hares. I studied The Frugal Housewife and made it, as Mrs Dickinson suggested, Ada’s second Bible. I read close on thirty books by or about Emily in the course of the research – about her relationships, her poetry, her life in general. I wanted to get things right, to be loyal to her; I fell deeply for her warmth and wit while writing the book.

That joy really comes through in the novel, Nuala. Now tell me about the baking. I just adored the scenes with Emily and Ada in the kitchen, the dynamics between them and how each of their personalities seem to shine, and their friendship bloom, as they bake.

“I take dried pears from their jar; they were as pink as plums when picked, with crinoline hips and the flesh of candies. Now they curl – silenced yellow tongues – in my hand. I glance at Ada, and she is smiling roundly, forgetting now her Daniel and his saving of her from the lion. She uses her hands to mix together raisins and citron rind; the smell is glorious.”

In fact, I wished there were recipes at the back of the book – perhaps there will be on your website? 

NUALA: I love to cook and bake, and that was what drew me back to Emily later in life, having studied her poetry at school. Some of the articles I have written, for Reader’s Digest in Canada for example, featured recipes, as does the Penguin Book Club Guide to the book. Some of Emily’s recipes (tweaked by me) can also be found at my cooking blog, The Hungry Veggie Her Coconut Cake is a sweet, buttery, easy cake – I make it all the time now for visitors. My cousin Clodagh and I are going to bake some of Emily’s cakes for the launch (details below).

How wonderful – I’ll try those recipes out and look forward to samples at your launch! I relished the way the themes of gender and equality are peppered through the book, and with Ada as our perceptive observer, some of the expectations of women can be seen – tenderly – in the relationship between Emily and Susan, her sister-in-law, and how, through her poetry and solitude, Emily manages to escape some of these expectations.

“I simply do not feel comfortable in a throng; my head gets addled, and I long for peace. And Sue may not comprehend either the writer’s absolute need for quiet and retreat, the solace of it…I put my lips to her cheek and tell the curl of ear, ‘I prefer to have you alone. That way you are all mine.’”

NUALA: Women were expected to marry in nineteenth century Amherst, so Emily and her sister Vinnie were an unusual pair of spinsters. But they were well-to-do – their father was a lawyer and when he died their lawyer brother looked after them. So, in a sense, they had the luxury of being rebels. The Dickinson family were eccentric, they were clever and good leaders, important in the town, but they did things in their own way. Emily loved her sister-in-law Sue fervently – Sue was editor, friend and confidante to her.

I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed so tenderly over the course of the book. Yet there are also strong, and complex, male characters in Miss Emily: Emily’s brother Austin is an interesting character who, I can say, without revealing the plot, grows and changes through the novel; Patrick seems to be the antithesis to Daniel yet both are believable characters who provide yet another kind of insight into the Dickinsons, and, interestingly, reveal certain views of the Irish and class.

NUALA: I made Austin Dickinson quite anti-Irish in the novel – he may not have been as racist as I portrayed him. Ada and Emily are both such sweet, decent creatures, I needed the contrast of the fiery Austin, blowing in and out with his mad red hair, negative opinions and grumpy face. He and Emily were very close as children but once he became a responsible citizen and husband, Austin became more serious.

Patrick and Daniel are two sides of the Irish emigrant: the drunken layabout and the hard-working, go-ahead type.

And a question more than a comment, will we discover, in the future, what became of Ada and Daniel?

NUALA: I was asked this question a lot on my American book tour – I think it’s a good sign because it means people like the characters, and care enough about them, to hope for a good future for them. I have no plans to return to Ada and Daniel but I feel that life went well for them in the end: deep love, happiness – the whole shebang!

Sounds great! Nuala, I’d love to hear you read from Miss Emily. I know you have already given some readings (for example at the West Cork Literary Festival), where might we next find you with Miss Emily in hand?

NUALA: I will read a little from the book at my launch in The Gutter Book Shop, Dublin, Friday 28th August, 6.30pm. (All welcome!)

Other confirmed appearances:

  • Thursday 3rd September: Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna, Co. Galway
  • Saturday 19th September: Spirit of Folk Festival, Co. Meath
  • Sunday 18th October: Kildare Reader’s Festival, Riverside Arts Centre, Newbridge, Co. Kildare
  • Thursday 29th October: Blackbird Books, Navan, Co. Meath
  • Wednesday 25th November: Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast

I’ll be there on Friday 28th! And of course, we can keep up to date with your blog and website. Thanks again, Nuala, and I wish you continued and further success with the wonderful Miss Emily.

MissECover

MissE_UScover

THE DRAW FOR A SIGNED COPY OF MISS EMILY TOOK PLACE ON AUGUST 28th ….and the winner was Shirley McClure.

 

Writers Chat 3: Alan McMonagle on “Ithaca” (Picador: London, 2017) and “Psychotic Episodes” (Arlen House: Galway, 2013)

The third post in my “Writers Chat” series is mix of old and new chats: a re-post of a chat with Alan McMonagle about his second short story collection Pyschotic Episodes and a new chat about his highly acclaimed debut novel Ithaca…

Alans novel

Alan since our last “Writers Chat” five years ago, your writing has gone from strength to strength, most recently with the astounding and well-deserved success of your debut novel Ithaca (Picador, 2017).

The Irish Times described it as a “fierce and funny modern odyssey” and while I do not disagree, I wonder if what they have described is what essentially makes up all stories – that of the hero’s journey. Did you set out to write Jason’s story as an odyssey (I’m thinking of the title here, of course, and the reference to Greek mythology) or did the story start with character and then evolve into an odyssey as you, the writer, journeyed with Jason?

When it comes down to it there are two stories to tell: a person goes in search of something and a stranger comes to town. This remark has been attributed to many writers, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jason’s ‘search’ arrived fully formed from the get-go, a journey of sorts slowly began to present itself as the basis of a narrative arc. Jason’s story, however, started out as a voice. A youthful voice, playful and unreliable, that evolved into a character and to whom I bequeathed a hinterland, a stomping ground along with its motley population with whom Jason was going to interact in varying degrees. This mix of voice and character, of setting and encounters, I suppose, offered a tension that helped sustain a narrative thrust. However, from the outset I always felt there was a gaping hole in Jason’s psyche. And the further the narrative progressed the stronger this feeling took hold. Writing is an act of faith, and so I pursued my wayward narrative in the hope that what this gaping hole was would eventually present itself. As a writer I spent a lot of time looking outside of Jason. To his nearest and dearest. To his enemies. To pretty much everyone with whom he was interacting. I was constantly looking to the hinterland, to the claustrophobic horizons of Jason’s stomping ground. I was three quarters way through a solid draft when I realized I was looking in the wrong places. I shouldn’t be looking outside of Jason – I should be looking inside. This guy literally wouldn’t harm a fly, I said to myself. The only person he is a danger to is himself. And then it came to me – he is a self-harmer. He is a self-harmer because he is in need of a hero – a parental figure – he can look to. And so I went back to the beginning. And in this manner the narrative of Ithaca takes on that classical trope of the hero’s journey – but I think it is very much an inner journey, in addition to the more obvious outward journey as Jason strikes out beyond the confines of his stomping ground. So really the evolution voice into character provides the basis for the quest my narrator sets himself.

What a fascinating insight into your process, Alan. Lots to ponder here about character formation and narrative voice. Now the town, in Ithaca like in much of your short fiction, is another character. Tell me about the divisions of the town – the Swamp, McMorrows, Rich Hill – and how they might echo the divisions and gaps in Jason’s own life.

Great question. The Swamp, McMorrow’s, Rich Hill are key locations for Jason as he sets about locating his elusive ‘Da’.  The Swamp is where he first meets the Girl. She is in the water, and thinking the worst, he fishes her out and so begins one of the story’s two central relationships. A relationship that provides Jason with a means to reveal a side of himself he will most likely otherwise conceal. Another location, Rich Hill, provides Jason with a taster of how the other half lives, the ‘haves’ as opposed to the ‘have-nots’. Rich Hill in general and Fat Grehan’s unfinished mansion in particular serve to highlight Jason’s ‘wrong side of the tracks’ origins. It’s also the part of town where he gives himself permission to lash out at his circumstances and terms of existence. It’s where he is most likely to get in trouble, fall foul of the law and so forth. A third key locale, McMorrow’s (‘dimly lit pub’), is where he goes to seek out Flukey, the initial candidate Jason posits as his Da. And so, yes, the pub is representative of another crucial gap in Jason’s existence, and as far as Jason is concerned, probably the gap that matters most. At the end of his famous play Life Of Galileo, Brecht has Galileo’s friend say, Unlucky the man that has no heroes. And Galileo says, Lucky the man that needs no heroes. Well, for better or worse, my little guy needs a hero, and in his case it involves a journey that is a mix of humour and pain and chaos and desperation. A journey that involves a search for someone or something that may remain out of reach, elusive. And ultimately what I think the narrative of Ithaca is trying to do is convey the measures Jason is prepared to take as his search becomes more desperate and he finally begins to realize that who or what he is looking for may be a lot to closer to home than he is ready to believe when we first meet him. The locales you mention in your question, along with one or two others, all have a part to play.

Yes, I love how everything in Ithaca fits together. There are no wasted characters in this landscape. 

Read on for the Writers Chat Alan and I had in 2013 about his short story collection Psychotic Episodes.

psy episodes cover

I’ve just finished Psychotic Episodes, one of the few story collections I have read in one sitting. It seemed to me that what brought all the stories together was that thread of the absurd coupled side by side with a sense of dread and caustic humour. Tell me, did you have a plan or a vision for this collection or did it evolve into itself?

A plan – definitely not. In fact I am fairly certain that each of the stories has their own story to tell as to how they came into existence. One or two arrived unannounced from the farthest recesses of my imagination and insisted on writing themselves with little or no input from myself. One or two literally fell out of larger pieces that were paying absolutely no heed to anything I was telling them to do. Others were not so keen until they looked a certain way and so needed a little finessing. Others said to hell with the rules, let’s just go for it. The upshot of all of this is that I am, at various times, an instinctive, reluctant, plodding, spontaneous writer. It was only when I started looking over what had accumulated that the common ground began apparent – the absurdity and chaos you refer to, that teetering on the brink. The stories are in a big way influenced by my own reading and, of course, by my own latent sensibilities, how I perceive and receive the world.

I’m interested, also, in the sequencing of the stories. You start with the moving ‘Looking after Little Patrick’ – I love the child’s name here and though there is something shocking about the cocktail making at the start, by the mid to end of the story I was laughing out loud and feeling they were all having a lovely time until, of course, your killer ending, which wiped the smile off my face and left me feeling guilty for laughing!

Your question, as well as being so well thought out, is also the ideal compliment you can give this particular story, Shauna. My good writing friend and all round purveyor of lightning wisdom, Ger Mills, says my stories snuggle up to you and then take a bite. I like this description and think it can be applied to the story you speak of. The story is essentially a psycho-drama – with the comedy thrown in. At the time I was re-reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and sitting up late watching Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton go at it in the film version. Also, at the time, my neighbours’ little baby seemed intent on establishing a new world record for crying. Also, at the time, my girlfriend and myself were given our little nephew for the day. Somehow the disparate yet timely elements coalesced. Instinctively, I placed this story as the opening story for the tone it quickly sets, for the early flavour it provides of the skewed sensibilities in the stories. It was also the first story I finished after my first collection.

That’s really interesting, such an insight into the creation of the story, and indeed, the collection. I’d like to hear about how you get into character. You’re fond of first person voice and move well between a child’s voice (‘The Story Teller and the Thief’ and ‘Runaways’) and a female voice (‘Psychotic Episodes’).

I am an aural learner (as opposed to the more common visual learning). And so, in any piece of writing, I need to ‘hear’ everything – narration, reflection, observation – in addition to dialogue. In my own reading there are writers I return to time and time again precisely for this purpose. William Saroyan (his wonderful take on childhood). Flannery  O’Connor (for the darkness). Sergei Dovlatov (for the chaos). Grace Paley and Amy Hempel (great female voices). These (among others), if you like, are my tuning forks. I’ve read about the so-called advantages of the third person narrator, its flexibility and omniscience. However, I feel if you have a strong enough ‘voice’ then a first person narrative becomes an essential part of story.

I must look Hempel up I don’t know her work. Now, tell me about endings. You have some wonderful ones – ‘Gutted’ and the wonderfully titled ‘Elizabeth Taylor and the Tour de France Cyclist’. Are you ever surprised by the endings that come to you as you write or do you plan the ending?

Almost every time – surprised. Which is why I think writing is an act of faith – at some point in the future you are depending upon something presenting itself (an ending, for example) that doesn’t yet exist. Endings, as well as beginnings, are delicate, require soft hands. It is what takes you from beginning to end that involves cement and mortar and blood and tears. I think it was Philip Larkin, of all people, who said a good story should have a beginning, a muddle and an end. All too often I find myself muddling…And then, from nowhere it seems, a way out – an ending – offers itself. The two stories you refer to here are good examples.

What a wonderful quote, I love the idea of muddling. But I have to ask you if you cycle – I like the way cycling and bikes feature in the collection, almost little creatures in themselves.

Bicycles as little creatures – what a lovely observation…I take a push bike around the narrow Galway streets. On my way in to town, there is a certain road I always use because it slopes downhill and so gets me where I have to be quickly and without huge effort. However, there is a certain hour in the day – early to mid-afternoon – whereupon if you find yourself on this road and on a bicycle you really are running the gauntlet. I also take my bike out on the backroads near where I live. I am restless by nature, need to be in motion, and it amazes me some of the ideas that arrive while pedalling through the desolation and dignity of Old Clybaun.

I  think the collection holds some of that desolation and dignity. But I was also tickled by nostalgia with all the references to 99s, flakes, Tayto crisps and I laughed out loud at the ‘Bloomsday Bus Driver’ which seems quintessentially Irish to me with the ice-creams, the desperation to catch every last ray of sun, the need, generally to get and keep something good while it’s still going. Any reflections on this?           

My grandfather used to work on the buses out of Sligo. Occasionally I would tag along, the five-mile trip from Sligo town to Rosses Point being a particular favourite. ‘Bus Driver’ (in many ways) is a slender story, but I like its simplicity, its purity, which I feel is in keeping with the time it is attempting to reflect. A couple of people whose judgement I respect have said to me that it rings so true. I was even given a wonderful anecdote by a Galway poet about his long-ago experience on slow-moving trains. It is very satisfying to hear that this story is speaking to a generation from a time I myself barely experienced.

Finally, if you’re willing to reveal, what are you working on now?

There are poems to coerce, new stories to plámás into life. Someone has asked me to write a one-act play, the one constraint being that it has to be set in a bar – which, for an Irish writer, surely has to be the most liberating constraint conceivable! And now I’ve put the hex on myself and no doubt I’ll soon be muddling again…

Wow, a play in a bar. Interesting indeed. And poems. Good luck with that. I look forward to reading what comes of the muddling!

Aoife Casby’s wonderful artwork graces the front and back cover. Find out about Aoife here: http://www.aoifecasby.net/