Category Archives: International writers

Yiyun Li discusses two Cork writers


When I travel to a specific country/city, I would like to bring a book connected to that place. For instance, I traveled to London with VS Pritchett’s London Perceived, and to Denmark with the letters of Izak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) sent from Africa to her Danish family and friends.

However, there are two Cork writers whose work have accompanied me on all these trips, as they belong to the second category: writers with whom I have constantly conversed, and I strive for my work to talk with their work. These two writers are Elizabeth Bowen, whom I discovered the last time I came to the festival, and William Trevor.

I was reading Bowen’s Collected Stories on the flight from San Francisco yesterday. And here’s one story, titled I Hear You Say So (what a beautiful title!). The story was about one evening–“this tense and aimless, tired and tender evening–in London immediately after WWII was over.

Since it is a story without a plot, I don’t feel the danger of giving anything away. The story follows several pairs of characters, almost all made anonymous by the darkness of the night, and the vignettes of their dialogues and interactions, harmlessly seeming at times, all of a sudden led to this question: “But can people live without something they cannot have?”

As a reader, I was  caught unprepared by the question. Bowen always does that to you, and once the question is asked, you realize that nothing is as it seems. And that, to me, is the beauty of Bowen’s writing: she makes you look at things twice, and more than that, she makes you understand what you haven’t been able to see when you are looking.

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Excerpt from The Double Life by Deborah Willis

In one of my lives, I’m a writer. This means, essentially, that I contemplate the human experience while wearing my pajamas. The writer in me constantly reads and writes and thinks about stories. This writer––let’s call her Deborah Willis––has spent whole, pleasant days worrying over commas. She prefers to be alone. If the telephone rings while she’s working, she stares at it, horrified, and refuses to answer. Her shoulders are hunched from bending over a notebook, her eyes strained from the computer screen, and she recently developed carpal tunnel in her wrists. Who says the writing life isn’t strenuous? It can lead to, among other disorders, self-obsession and a Vitamin-D deficiency.

Fortunately, there’s another me, and she gets out more. She works in a bookstore, which means that she’s always on her feet, carrying books up and down stairs, putting them on and taking them off shelves. She can recommend children’s books, Canadian fiction, and foreign-language titles. She makes change, deals with till-tape, runs debit cards though machines, sends special orders, and receives magazines. For her, books are to be displayed, alphabetized, and sold. This is an exaggeration, of course––books are not only products. In fact, her work has made her love them more. But she has been a bookseller for almost five years, which is long enough for the job to become an identity. She wears it like a second skin. Her name is Debbie, and she would be happy to help you.

The bookstore where I work, Munro’s Books in Victoria, BC, used to be a bank. It is grand, spooky, beautiful, and almost as untidy as my apartment. It’s an old building with character, part of what guidebooks accurately call Victoria’s “historic and picturesque” downtown. It has marble countertops, art on the walls, dark wood shelves, creaky floorboards, and a reputation for being haunted. My favorite part of the store is the part customers never see: the basement, which is made up of a series of steel-and-concrete vaults.

When Munro’s was a Royal Bank––during that era before banks were housed in huge, anonymous buildings––these vaults must have held receipts, checks, and safety deposit boxes. Now, they’re where we keep the overstock. It’s like something Lewis Carroll might have imagined, if Alice had fallen down a rabbit hole and into a booklover’s fantasy. Vaults with heavy metal doors open onto to other vaults, and each one is filled with books. There is something romantic and wonderful and completely backwards about this: finance replaced with literature, scurrying bankers replaced with scurrying booksellers, the sterility of numbers replaced with the unruliness of words.

I fell into this job in the same way I’ve always fallen in love––by accident. I needed some income to pay the rent during my last year of university, so I dropped off a resume and spoke to the owner, Mr. Munro. I believe he hired me partly because he found my resume amusing (my list of accomplishments included scooping ice cream at a shop called ‘Wonderlicks,’ and getting fired from a barista job because I didn’t take the ‘coffee art’ seriously enough).

On my first day, I was given the keys to the store, taught the combination to the safe, and told to call Mr. Munro by his first name. It turns out that Jim is an exceptionally kind, trusting, and generous man. To be hired by him is to be immediately welcomed into his family. He runs an independent, old-fashioned business, the kind of place that big-box stores and the Internet can never replace, but often do. It’s the kind of place where employees stay for decades. One clerk even identifies himself as “Steve from Munro’s,” as though the store were his hometown.

I don’t mean to make it sound like a museum piece, since Munro’s is a profitable business. I also don’t mean to romanticize the work. A job is a job, after all, and anyone who has worked in retail during the Christmas season knows that customer service can be its own particular hell. And though it’s one of the best jobs I can imagine, a bookstore can terrify a writer. The sheer number of books makes me feel nervous and unnecessary. Classics, mysteries, romances, essays, histories, poetry––they arrive in box after box of hardbacks, trade papers, and mass markets. Then, a year or so later, many are returned unsold to publishers, to be remaindered or pulped. This is the stuff of writers’ nightmares. When faced with it in reality, it’s hard for me to convince myself that the world needs another book, especially mine. Why bother? I often think as I put labels on the newest page-turner about a vampire shopaholic, or the latest novel hailed as “a triumph, full of wry wisdom.” These are the moments when the bookseller in me is in conflict with the writer. Why do you get up in the morning? she asks. What’s the point?

You can read the rest of the essay “The Double Life” on Deborah’s website. Deborah will be interviewed tomorrow (Thursday, 15th September) at 4pm, in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork, and will follow with a reading later in the evening at 7.30pm in the same venue.

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An interview with Michael Christie

What is it as a reader, and a writer, that attracts you to the short story?

I make little distinction between my reading life and my writing life in terms of what attracts me. The joys and sorrows I unearth when reading a great story are the very same that I try to cram into my own. The attractive part is that the short story can create very unique effects in relation to other literary forms. There is something about a short story that feels like it’s already ending, even halfway through the first sentence. Though there have been a multitude of brilliant TV series recently (i.e. HBO’s The Wire), I much prefer the form of a feature film to this kind of protracted, episodic unspooling. I love to know that the film I’m watching is going to end, that here and now, no matter what, it will be settled (this may be why I usually avoid sequels). I loathe the idea of a narrative going forever, as long as the series is renewed and there is advertiser interest, etc. I also grow tired when I feel like I’m being narratively hooked and strung along, which is how I often feel reading novels. With short stories this is never the case. You are constantly worried that you may get too little, but never that you will get too much.

Your collections is described as “darkly comic and intoxicating stories, gleefully free of moral judgment…” – How do you maintain a non-judgemental, comic stance when dealing with such tricky characters and situations? Are there any other writers that you think do this particularly well?

I really love fiction where it feels like an alternate moral system is at work. Chekov is perhaps the greatest example of this. The way he can rattle off a complete inventory of a person’s faults, while simultaneously conveying a genuine love for them, is what renders his fiction so heart-wrenching. Underneath it all he seems to be whispering, “Yes, these people are terrible, you are terrible, I am also terrible, but isn’t it beautiful nonetheless, don’t we all deserve at least some forgiveness…” I think all great writing forgives.

In a more contemporary vein, writers like Denis Johnson, Alice Munro, George Saunders, Edward P. Jones and Miranda July, who style-wise all hugely differ, but share in this same lack of judgment. And as far as comedy goes, as soon as you start describing people with any accuracy, things get funny quick. Often the trick is dialling this back to a point where it’s not distracting or cruel. “Love your characters” is a writing-program cliche, but it really is true.

What benefits and challenges did you come across when writing your series of linked short stories? Was this pattern intentional from the start?

I had a loose idea that I wanted to write a linked collection from the beginning. I’ve long admired books like Joyce’s Dubliners or Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City (a solid-gold masterpiece, in my opinion) that take a city as their central character. My book, The Beggar’s Garden, is very much about Vancouver, where I lived for many years. I think a linked collection can tackle a modern city in a way a novel can’t. Narratives are suggested in the spaces between the stories, and life seems to teem outside the margins–more lives than could ever be described or known. Collections of this kind emulate our fractured and disjointed existences, which remain so even with us packed together in such tight quarters (like in a book!). The challenge specific to this approach is the same as a non-linked collection: write good stories. And what a challenge that is.

Readers like to imagine that the stories they read are about themselves or the author – to what extent did you base your stories around your own experiences and the people you know?

This one is always tough. In Canada, Margaret Atwood is kind of culturally ubiquotous, and even from a young age I remember her chastising interviewers for drawing inferences between her own life and the lives of her characters (I recently watched a National Film Board of Canada documentary where this happened the entire time!)

To me, it seems almost narcissistic to insist that your imagination is greater than, and separate from, ‘you’. I believe the ‘you’ in your work is inescapable. We imagine in the language we’ve learned, through the lens of our personality, with only the tools of what we already know. What we write does speak about us, but the real problem is the kind of inferences we draw from this. Of course if you write about rape you are not a rapist. But isn’t it true that a certain sort of person writes about rape? Still a good, kind person, certainly, but probably someone who is thinking about the interplay of sex and power and male oppression.

Fiction is exciting because it exists somewhere between autobiography and pure imagination. Really, I think we just need to enjoy this mystery, rather than try to solve it. So in my case: I worked at a homeless shelter in Canada’s most impoverished neighbourhood for six years, and my book features drug dealers and users, thieves and people from all walks of society. Some of the book I could never have imagined, and some of it I did. I leave it to the reader to do the math.

Were you expecting such a huge response for your debut collection – and how has the reaction affected you as a writer?

It has been both surreal and wonderful. I would’ve been equally thrilled with much, much less of a response. Actually, the Beggar’s Garden was just longlisted for the Giller Prize, and to be on a list–any kind of list!–with someone like Michael Ondaatje is such an honour that it’s borderline absurd. I’m not sure how it’s all affected me so far. I suppose I feel slightly more confident as I begin my next project, which may or may not be a good thing. We’ll see.

To write a damn good short story, what fundamental elements are required? And what would you say are the most common errors that people make, that let their stories down?

I often find myself comparing writing to music. Very simply put, the short story must, as a song must, carry the listener/reader’s attention and offer them pleasure. That’s it. A story doesn’t necessarily need all the old English 101 elements (character, setting, theme, plot, climax etc.), much the same way a song doesn’t need every instrument (often just a solitary voice can be enough), but what is there must be working on many levels, that is key. For a voice to successfully carry an accapella song, there must be an interesting tension between the performance, the lyrics, the vocal tone and the recording technique. For a writer, the most essential skill to develop is an ear for whether something interesting is actually happening in your work. This is the skill that beginning writers often don’t have yet. But it comes with practice.

What’s next for you and your writing career?

I’m working on a novel now. Not because of any agent or publisher pressure, rather because it’s the next story I feel moved to tell. I’ve managed to arrange some time to write in the coming months, so that’s what I’ll be doing, happily. Working on my book, watching snow pile on my windowsill.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

No, thanks. I feel I’ve already written too much…

Michael Christie will be interviewed on Thursday, 15th September at 4pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork, and will read later in the evening at @ 7.30pm in the same venue.

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An interview with Suzanne Rivecca

Your first book has received much attention, including being in the final list for several awards – how has this influenced you as a writer?

I was surprised by the attention the book received from awards committees and such. When the book first came out in summer 2010, the reviews were generally respectable but there were a lot of remarks along the lines of “This is self-involved and self-indulgent and repetitive, all these minute examinations of lady-problems” and a lot of presumptive comments about how every character was basically me—this from people who have never met me and know nothing about my biography beyond the snippet on the book jacket—and that this somehow rendered the book illegitimate as art.

Initially, there seemed to be a condescending critical consensus that amounted to this sentiment: “She’s a good writer; I can’t wait to see what she produces once she matures.”  There was something really Freudian about it, like my book was the equivalent of a clitoral orgasm and everyone was just holding their breath for me to come up with a mature vaginal one (sorry, Mom and Dad).  And that made me angry, I have to admit; I felt like the book was being dismissed or trivialized because it was about girls and women–not selfless, martyred, long-suffering Oprah’s Book Club girls and women, but fierce, neurotic, single-minded, obsessive girls and women–and people couldn’t see the universality in it; they got tripped up by the perceived inaccessibility of the gendered lens. So several months after publication, when the book started getting attention via these awards lists, it was a genuine shock.  And the best part was attending these awards ceremonies and talking face-to-face with people who told me how much the book meant to them.

The juxtaposition of initial dismissal with this later, sudden outpouring of support and validation was very emotional and meaningful for me. It reminded me how alone I was when I wrote these stories, the raw purity of intention that informed them, the blood and guts I poured into them, how hard I had to fight to get them on the page and how proud I was of my refusal to compromise in terms of their content and message.  And now that I’m working on a new book, I do feel pressure, like I need to recapture that uncorrupted, writing-for-myself mentality that informed the first book.  I feel kind of like Emma, the protagonist in my title story, who doesn’t know who she is unless she’s fighting, who finds it hard to live meaningfully without a goading catalyst, a reliable adversary, something to react against.

But the truth is I’m not just writing for myself anymore. I know that there are expectations now, and that makes me feel a little twice-removed from the intuitive, visceral aspect of the writing process. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s distracting to know that there are actually things at stake now. I do struggle with that on a daily basis—locating that old urgency, the old life-or-death incentive.

Some of your writing influences are evident in your work – such as Jim Shepard – but what short stories/short story writers inspire you the most?

Mary McCarthy is my favorite short-story writer, as well as one of the most underrated practitioners of that genre.  She’s primarily known today as a memoirist and a novelist, but in my opinion her short stories— particularly those in her debut book, “The Company She Keeps”—are the finest examples we have of her vision, her scathing intelligence and her unsparing psychological acuity.

When I discovered “The Company She Keeps,” I felt a huge gush of validation and recognition. I guess it would be called a “linked” collection in today’s parlance, since each story features the same protagonist, but one of the things I like about it is that the stories are utterly stand-alone, unapologetically independent of one another, and yet together they create this riveting portrait of a human being.  I could relate to McCarthy’s themes—her Catholic, Irish-American Midwestern upbringing, her struggle to invent an artistic and autonomous self without forsaking or denying the influence of her origins, her acknowledgment of the brittleness and emotional detachment that is sometimes a byproduct of political and artistic self-actualization, especially for women—but what I took most from these stories is her utter refusal to let her fictional alter ego, Margaret Sargent, off the hook.  There is nothing remotely self-serving about these stories. They are a brutal, relentless, witty, insightful excavation of a soul in transition, and they spare no one:  not the reader, not the protagonist, and not the writer.

Consciously or unconsciously, I think I intended “Death is Not an Option” as a contemporary answer to “The Company She Keeps.”  I was especially aware of channeling McCarthy in my story “Look Ma, I’m Breathing,” which is about a woman being stalked by a deranged landlord; I was careful not to make it a straightforward narrative of victimization, but a psychological study of a character forced to reckon with own tendency to self-mythologize and court the role of stoic martyr.  The final story in “The Company She Keeps,” which is called “Ghostly Father, I Confess,” ends with a devastating moment of jagged self-awareness that definitely inspired my portrayal of Isabel in “Look, Ma,”  of Kath in my story “Very Special Victims,” and of the narrator in “Consummation.”   McCarthy’s protagonist, Margaret, is sitting in the office of an insipid psychoanalyst, not really taking it seriously, but as she sits there she realizes she’s never developed a language to explain and make sense of her troubled background. She’s struggling to find a balance between acknowledging the damage that was done and trivializing it as a cliche.

Here’s the quote:

“You could not treat your life history as though it were an inferior novel and dismiss it with a snubbing phrase. It had after all been like that. Her peculiar tragedy (if she had one) was that her temperament was unable to assimilate her experience; the raw drama of those early years was a kind of daily affront to her skeptical, prosaic intelligence.”

In  few sentences, she encapsulates one of the central dilemmas of living a self-aware life, of being a whole person and not a catalogue of symptoms, a poster child, or an impervious caricature.

Short stories are often overlooked as a genre – what do you think is the cause, could this attitude be changed and, if so, how?

In the U.S. at least, pre-radio and pre-TV, stories were a serialized form of entertainment, meant to be enjoyed and savored one at a time. The readers waited, in suspense, for the next installment in the paper. Part of the enjoyment was in the episodic nature of the genre. Nowadays there’s so few mainstream print outlets left that regularly publish short fiction; it’s no longer integrated into populist culture the way it once was.

There are no mass-market short story collections (with notable exceptions like Stephen King’s); stories are seen as this rarefied and somewhat inaccessible medium, too “arty” for the general public, closer to poetry than to novels. They’re a lot more about language and style than novels are; plot isn’t necessarily their driving force. People always complain that nothing happens in them, or that nothing is resolved, and that the endings are too ambiguous and oblique. There’s this perception that no one reads them except other literary writers.  Plus, they’re the preferred medium for MFA students to work in, because they’re so much more manageable to workshop than a full-length novel. So that adds another layer of self-referential insulation to the genre.

There are a lot of contradictions inherent in the way stories are regarded, though: on the one hand they’re seen as less accessible and more artsy and experimental; on the other hand, a story collection is seen as training wheels for a novel—stories are what you write when you’re first finding your voice, but when you’re a fully realized artist with a unified vision, you come out with a novel.

Personally I think it takes an entirely different skill set to write a novel than it does to write a story collection. As for changing the cultural tendency to devalue short stories, I’m not sure what that would take. I guess it would help if people developed the patience to accept and value ambivalence and ambiguity, not only in art but in life, and if they stopped regarding art as an oracle that’s supposed to provide answers and morals. There’s still a Puritanism in U.S. culture that dictates that art has to be “useful” in some way, instructive or inspiring in a very moralistic, triumph-of-the-human-spirit way. And stories very rarely give that kind of warm & fuzzy inspiration. The inspiration they provide–for me, anyway–is more rigorous and challenging. A good story discomfits you, forces you to question things, to turn the lens on yourself. It leaves you with an unsettled feeling that’s almost indescribable. And in contemporary culture, there’s a reluctance to sit with that kind of unnameable sensation.

Thanks to internet communication, festivals such as this and the more sociable role of a writer, readers now understand the dedication that goes into writing. Describe your writing process – your routines, your thinking and your aims.

I’ve written since I was a child, and my motivation to do so  has always been unexamined and utterly instinctive; I just wrote because I felt inherently compelled to. I think this has informed the way I write today.  I’m not one of those methodical, ultra-disciplined writers who treat it like a day job and carve out 8 hours of uninterrupted writing time in their studies, chipping away until they meet their daily word count. I often wish I was one of those writers, but I’m not. I was conditioned from an early age to treat writing as an almost illicit, secret thing, a place I went in my head that was sacred and private, completely divorced from mundane routine and the obligations of the real world. So I have a hard time structuring my writing time in a dutiful, conventional manner. And I always feel so artificial and fraudulent when I allude to it as if it’s a chore–“Gotta go write now, see you later!”

There’s a certain feeling I get when I need to write, and I try to follow that gut feeling. If I don’t write for a few days, it finds me. And I need a very wide breadth when I’m working, which can be hard for non-writers to understand. Writing is not sociable for me, and it’s never going to be a casual topic of conversation; I need a lot of interpersonal space around it in order to feel intimately connected to what I’m working on. I need to feel that there’s no collective ownership of it; what I’m working on must belong entirely and solely to me. I’m not a natural teacher; nor am I a natural entertainer. I’m never going to be like Gary Shteyngart or Billy Collins, a cultural ambassador for a solitary art, delighting crowds with the power of my personality. I’m an introvert, and I’ve discovered that the integrity of my writing depends on my continued cultivation of my introversion.  I think that in order to be an artist, I need to feel like a bit of an outsider. The two just go together for me.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m working on a historical novel. It’s about Walt Whitman and the three months he spent working as a journalist in New Orleans in 1848, when he was 29. I’m trying to capture the time in his life when he was forced to a crisis point, forced to wrestle with who he was and what he believed, the incubation period before he emerged as a full-fledged artist with a distinctive vision of the world. The novel essentially tries to portray a budding artist’s baptism by fire.

Suzanne Rivecca will be interviewed on Thursday, 15 September at 5pm, in the The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork, and will follow with a reading at 9pm in the same venue.

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Siobhan Fallon: A story excerpt and an interview

An excerpt from Siobhan Fallon’s debut collection, You Know When the Men are Gone:

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Three a.m. and breaking into the house on Cheyenne Trail was even easier than Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash thought it would be. There were no sounds from above, no lights throwing shadows, no floorboards whining, no water running or the snicker of late-night TV laugh tracks. The basement window, his point of entry, was open. The screws were rusted, but Nick had come prepared with his Gerber knife and WD-40; got the screws and the window out in five minutes flat. He stretched onto his stomach in the dew-wet grass and inched his legs through the opening, then pushed his torso backward until his toes grazed the cardboard boxes in the basement below, full of old shoes and college textbooks, which held his weight. He had planned this mission the way the army would expect him to, the way only a soldier or a hunter or a neurotic could, considering every detail that ordinary people didn’t even think about. He mapped out the route, calculating the minutes it would take for each task, considering the placement of streetlamps, the kind of vegetation in front, and how to avoid walking past houses with dogs. He figured out whether the moon would be new or full and what time the sprinkler system went off. He staged this as carefully as any other surveillance mission he had created and briefed to soldiers before.

Except this time the target was his own home.

For more, please visit Siobhan’s website at http://www.siobhanfallon.com. In the meantime, here’s a short interview with Siobhan which reveals a few secrets about what makes her tick…

Siobhan, what inspired you to become a writer?

I come from a family of bartenders. My dad owns an Irish pub (he was born in Leitrim) in my hometown of Highland Falls, New York, and my brother, sister and I (as well as my mother, who worked literally until the day I was born) have all spent long shifts there. There were plenty of afternoons in our house when we would pour each other hot cups of tea and share whatever wild happenings unfolded at the bar the night before.

There are the mundane moments to bartending—handing people their pints as they watch baseball games, refilling the toilet paper rolls in the ladies room, washing glasses until your knuckles ache from the hot water. But there are a lot of transformations as well, from the shift of a mellow after-work-crowd to the take-it-to-the-face college kids or soldiers, to the fellow in the barstool in front of you slowly changing from sober to intoxicated. People of course have a tendency to reveal secrets, to say and do incredible things when they have been freed by a touch of alcohol. The bartender is the observer, the person who tries to keep things easy, handing out vodka or conversation or music on the jukebox, but she is never truly part of the party, she is outside of it all, aware and ready.

I like to think that bartending helped train me as a writer—teaching me to examine both the small moments and momentous ones, to listen, to take note of the careful or frantic beat of human reactions and emotions.

Writers are intriguing creatures and every one works differently; describe your writing process.

Alleluia to preschool. My daughter, Maeve (yes, named after the “intoxicating” Irish warrior queen), just started half-day preschool. If I ignore paying bills, getting groceries, cleaning the house, answering the phone or Facebook messages, I may eke out about three hours of solid writing time a day.

I make a pot of cardamom coffee or mint tea (fresh mint is a steal here in Jordan), get out my lap top. I usually try to reread the previous day’s work to limber up. If I am editing, I will look over a friend’s critique or at least have it printed out and ready for reference. If I am working on something new I might start with a sketch, just a few lines, and map out a few scenes along the way, such as “Remember what the alarm sounded like when Maeve set off your panic room button—describe that noise, the guards outside the window, the radio-call to the Marines.” One of the images might be so crisp and perfect in my mind that I will have to get it all down and I will start typing dialogue, and that’s the entry point. Then I start to really ‘write’ or create, and before I know it I have a three year old climbing up into my lap asking for a snack.

When you’re working on a new project, at what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom?

My husband is my first reader. I’ll ask him to take a look at a story when I have most of it down, at least the arc and bones of it all, start to finish. I’ll be at a place where I need someone who isn’t half rabid on these particular characters or plot to tell me, “Whoa, what in the world is happening here?” It helps that my husband happens to be a great reader. I first turned to him out of necessity when I started writing my collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, a few of
years ago, needing him to check all of the Army/ soldier/deployment lingo, but he amazed me with insights that I thought someone could only learn in an MFA program (for the record, I have an MFA and I am a pretty horrible critical reader). After my husband and I talk things out and I rework it, I send the draft to my literary agent (who does not have an MFA but is a ruthless, rip-the-throat-out kind of reader) and two very good writer friends who do happen to have MFAs.

Sometimes I send the draft to them all at once, sometimes I stagger it out and go down the list, rewriting and sending the next reader a newer draft until it has been rewritten at least four times (not to mention all the times I rewrote it before sending to them). These four perspectives are about all I can handle. Then it goes out to a magazine and, at least until I hear back, that story is finished and I start on the next.

What do you think a good book should deliver?

It should haunt you. You close the book and can’t stop thinking about the words and characters, and then you keep opening it up again, rereading lines or descriptions, still having little explosions of awareness (aha, so that’s why that happened!). I have a tendency toward insomnia and sometimes I get my best thinking (and writing) done while tossing and turning in bed. I will often think of a story I have read, or maybe a story I am working on, and worry away at its intricate paths, trying to follow it into sleep even it if leads to unsettling dreams.

Siobhan Fallon will be reading on Friday, 16 September with Michal Ajvaz @ 7.30pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork.

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The Past: a story by Michal Ajvaz

The Past

I’m sitting at the Slavia, people-watching. In one corner I recognize the pointed bird-like profile of the man who one stormy night, Malay dagger in hand, chased me past locked compartments along empty corridors of the Orient Express. I recall his long night-shirt flashing intermittently with the lightning, the curtains fluttering through the open windows and whipping me in the face. How long ago was it? Five years, maybe ten. What was our quarrel about anyway? Something to do with rubies buried in a snow-drift in the woods, I think, or whether linguistic signs are motivated. That woman over there, thoughtfully combing her wavy red locks, their quivering ends sparkling in the low, October-afternoon sun, lived with me for seven years in a squalid house built on concrete stilts in the middle of a rotting lake surrounded on all sides by a jungle, a house with empty rooms and white walls covered with eerie maps of mould, a house where the sound of dripping water never ceased and where we whiled away the evenings on the terrace, gazing out at the water’s cold surface and the darkening jungle, listening to the screeching of the beasts, and talking of the life we would live once we were back in Europe. The man arguing with the waiter at the bar is a friend from my days in Freiburg in Breisgau, the one I collaborated with on Grundstrukturen der Wirklichkeit, a thousand-page tome we were certain would turn philosophy on its ear and rank as the most important contribution to the field since Aristotle (as it happened, the sole copy of the manuscript was ingested by a crocodile under circumstances I can’t quite recall). I see a few more faces familiar from various catacombs, Buddhist monasteries, and a night spent on the narrow, eightieth-story ledge of a skyscraper above a sleeping city; I see faces I have knows in the throes of ecstasy, eyes I have met at the bottom of the sea staring out ominously through a diving suit. But now we pretend not to know one another: we don’t say hello; we do our best to avoid one another’s eyes, though we each try to steal a glance at the other when we think the other isn’t looking.

Sometimes – quite often, actually – I get into ticklish situations. Once I asked a friend to come to the Slavia after a meeting she’d had with some television people. She appeared in the glass door with a man of about forty-five with short hair brushed down over his forehead. Czech-intellectual style. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. They spotted my table, and my friend introduced him. “I want you to meet M. He’s with Kratky Film.” Suddenly it came to me: he was a man I’d spent a whole day fighting to the death. We were in a ghost city in a marble square dotted with fountains. It was terribly, numbingly hot; the sun beat mercilessly on our heads. The only sound in the empty square came from the jets of water in the fountains and the blows of our heavy swords and their echoes as the ricocheted off the palatial facades and monotonous rows of Corinthian columns. I could tell he recognized me too. We gave each other wry smiles, shook each other’s limp hands, and mumbled a word or two. How awful these showdowns with ghosts of an unbridled past” We tried not to let it show, but carrying on a conversation proved a greater torture than battling it out on the sun-scorched marble. Instead of talking directly, we went through our friend, resorting to the most complex devices to avoid addressing each other and keep out eyes from meeting, but every once in a while I stole a glance at him and behind the lost, purple face caught a glimpse of the hard samurai features silhouetted against the white colonnade. He had worn a pointed gold helmet somewhat like a large radish in form. It shone in the sun, its malevolent lustre burning my weary eyes.

The miserable conversation centred on a dachshund cartoon he was working on. The samurai/script writer started rummaging in his briefcase for his script, but because I made him nervous he had trouble finding it and kept pulling out crumpled sheets of paper, piling them on the table with trembling hands that swept them onto the floor. And to top it all off what should fall out of the briefcase but the gold radish helmet, ringing with so pure and provocative a tone that the entire room fell silent and looked over at it, rocking gently before the paralyzed script writer to the tune of “L’important, c’est la rose,” which a bloated cavalier with a red waistcoat and a dreamy smile was playing on the piano. (Why is it we constantly drag around with us in our handbags and briefcases the weapons of our nocturnal wars, crystals of solidified poison in boxes lined with scarlet velvet, the head of the Gorgon Medusa, a tongue ripped from a dragon’s maw, the mummy of a homunculus, compromising correspondence in Sumerian? Why is it that we drag around the terrifying innards of the past, fearing them as we do, smelling the pus they exude, and knowing full well that in a bar, a café, or a friend’s flat moira the inexorable will spill them out on the table?)

Translated by Michael Henry Heim and originally published on Michal’s blog.

Michal Ajvaz will be reading on Friday, 16th September with Siobhan Fallon  at 7.30pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork

 

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The Short Story by Valerie Trueblood

(From “What’s the Story:  Aspects of the Form,” The American Poetry Review, July 2001).
It seems fair to say the average short story is not as hospitable to readers, to modern people with their own ideas, as the average novel, nor as open to looseness and imperfection.  Perhaps this is because, as Denise Levertov once said, “The short story gives us truth, the novel truth and consequences.”  The truth uncovered in a short story is often beyond anything a character could reasonably “deal with” in the manner recommended by the old manuals; its consequences are left to the shivering imagination, or we try to formulate them and give up, because they are curiously irrelevant to what has been shown.  A novel on the subject of either “A White Horse” or “The Rocking Horse Winner” might exhaust our good will as it worried out the practical and moral consequences of a wild flight toIndia or a child’s obsession.  The story says, Take it or leave it.

Compared to poets, Glenway Wescott wrote, fiction writers “must cast an easier spell, looser and farther flung, inclusive of some imperfection; so that the reader can…retell some of it to himself in his own words, relive some of it.”  He included the long short story in this observation, but here in fact is one of the places the story diverges from the novel and comes closer to poetry.  It is hard to think of a story that one would wish, exactly, to relive.  We do reread them.  But once having seriously encountered them, we go back to the great stories for their beauty or their hold over us, as we do poems, and we approach them warily.  A story such as “The Metamorphosis,” or Paul Bowles’s “The Frozen Fields,” or Nadine Gordimer’s quiet story of a terrorist, “Some Are Born to Sweet Delight,” we have to seize like a snake, behind the head, ready to undergo the ordeal a second time.  Jean Rhys’s “The Sound of the River,” in which a woman wakes up beside her husband who has died in the night, and Elizabeth Jolley’s “Grasshoppers,” in which a frail and confused grandmother is left in charge of small children, appall us even as something drives us back to them.

However thickly sown with detail it may be, the short story steeps the reader in the feeling that one thing is at work.  We come away with this sense even from one very drawn out in time, such as Alice Munro’s “Carried Away.”  In this story, beginning in World War I and continuing into the late Fifties, a woman who has recovered from TB waits out the war, works as a traveling saleswoman and a librarian, and loves three times, each seriously–once a married doctor at the TB sanatorium, once and for all time a young soldier she knows only through letters, who marries someone else and dies in a factory accident, and last the owner of the factory where the accident happened, whom she marries.  She raises children and lives to be old.  As an old woman with heart disease she meets at last the ghost of her mysterious second love, a figure so real as to cause arguments among readers of the story.  By the time it happens, his appearance to her in the city to which she has traveled by bus, dizzy and alone, for an appointment with the cardiologist, seems a simple consummation.

This is perhaps the supreme offering of the short story, the reader’s feeling that some proof has been submitted that life, long or short, funny or tragic, is simple.  The short story is the loaves and fishes run in reverse:  many things have gone into it and mysteriously become few.

Valerie Trueblood will be reading with Yiyun Li on Friday, 16 September at 9pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel

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