Category Archives: Irish writers

An interview with Peter Murphy

Unfortunately, I can’t make it through to the festival until tomorrow and so I’m missing the first evening’s events. However, I did get chance to catch up with one of the writers who will be reading tonight – Peter Murphy – for a short Q&A session before the festival began. Here’s what Peter had to say…
How does writing a novel compare to writing a short story?

They’re similar in terms of intensity, but the novel requires more stamina. A short story is a song. A novel’s an album.

What different techniques or mindset do you need to employ and how do you make the switch?

Short stories are unforgiving. There isn’t much scope for divergence. The novel comes with a different set of demands:  story engineering, modulations of tone and tempo, resolution.

When you start writing – what’s the starting point? Is it a theme, a plot, a character name – or does it change each time?

For me it’s usually a title or an opening line or maybe a fragment of the narrative voice. Character and story tend to grow from that. And there’s usually some sort of innate mystery or riddle that resists explanation.

Music is an integral part of your life – how does your music background influence your writing?

Mostly mood. A lot of times I’ll write a scene or a story because I’m attempting to replicate the feelings or images inspired by a piece of music. Throughout the writing of my second book I was listening to a couple of Doors songs, ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’ and ‘Yes the River Knows’, and also Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge of Town album. And I was recording with the Revelator Orchestra throughout, so a lot of the music we came up with looped back into the writing.

You said in an interview that John the Revelator wasn’t the book that you meant to write. When you’re writing fiction, do you instinctively know whether the piece is going to be a novel or a short story – or do you come away surprised?

I usually know before I begin. Although sometimes I’ll write what I think is a short story, only to find it wants to integrate itself into a longer narrative. The book’s the boss.

How do your characters manifest themselves? Does this differ depending on whether they’re contained within a novel or a short story?

Short stories are more about capturing a protagonist at a moment of great change. The event defines the character. With a novel, you live with them for a few years, watch them evolve.

Your career shows that you thrive on variety – so what can fans expect next?

I finished the second novel about a month ago, so I’m going to read and make notes and let the bucket fill up for a bit before deciding what next. Regarding variety, I love Stanley Kubrick. Every film was completely different, but each one defined its genre – noir films, war films, period dramas, black comedies, sci-fi and supernatural yarns.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Only that I’m very much looking forward to the festival.

Peter Murphy will be reading tonight, Wednesday, 14th September with Órfhlaith Foyle at 9pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork

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Short Story Collections by Peter Murphy

Short story collections occupy the status of fetish objects in my house. I still get the chills when I thumb through the yarns collected in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology of new wave 60s sci-fi writers, or the postwar masters in the Richard Ford-edited Granta Book of the American Short Story. I could go on. I will go on… Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The River’, Bierce’s ‘Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge’, Poe’s ‘Telltale Heart’, Gibson’s ‘Burning Chrome’, Schultz’s ‘The Comet’, Borges’ ‘Death & the Compass’. The diamond hard yarns collected in Mark Richard’s The Ice At the Bottom of the World or TC Boyle’s After the Plague or Mike McCormack’s Getting It In the Head. Just this summer, in an Enniscorthy charity shop, I discovered a mind-boggling 1985 collection called In the Field of Fire, a compendium of sci-fi and fantasy tales set against the background of the Vietnam War. Genre heaven.

Three of this writer’s holy texts, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, take the form of short stories threaded into a longer narrative arc. These are modest-sized books, but the economy, the richness, the pure protein-per-paragraph factor, inspires obsessive re-reading.  I love this story-within-a-story construction. I used it in my first novel John the Revelator and developed it further in the one I’ve just completed. To date the only stand-alone short story I’ve published is ‘The Blacklight Ballroom’ for Joseph O’Connor’s collection The News From Dublin (Faber), a Depression allegory set in the near-future, featuring a cameo from a Hank Williams hologram. It’s short even by short story standards, weighing in at something like 1200 words, but it taught me some brutal lessons about compression and economy. A great short story demands the sleight-of-hand skills of a card sharp. At ten or twenty pages, there’s no room for error. No bum notes. No spare words. The form demands painful levels of discipline and self-scrutiny.

I believe the epic novel and the short story/novelette/novella have much in common in terms of scale and ambition. But the middle-ground is more treacherous: middle-brow, middle-class, mid-length, stodgy 375-page novels bogged down with flabby prose and trudging storylines. I’d rather spend ten pages on Mars, or in Hanoi, or inside Edgar’s premature burial shroud. Give us maximalism or minimalism, extreme compression or outrageous digression, but keep us safe from from literary spam.

– Peter Murphy

Peter Murphy will be reading on Wednesday, 14th September with Órfhlaith Foyle at 9pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork


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An interview with Mary Costello

As a writer, and a reader, what attracts you to the short story?

As a reader I like the contained feel of a short story. I like to be taken into a character’s head, experience some small almost imperceptible shift in their being. I like to be quietly and subtly disarmed. The best short stories have a purity that both seduces and reduces the reader.

I kind of stumbled into the short story form. At 22 the need to write began to gnaw. The short story seemed like the quickest access route to something, the imagination probably.  Richard Ford says that he wrote his first story ‘because lived life somehow wasn’t enough, in some way didn’t hit the last note convincingly and was too quickly gone.’

What challenges did you have to overcome when putting together your collection, to be published by The Stinging Fly early next year?

Oh, trying to hit that last note, I suppose. In each story, in each rewrite, you’re straining for it and you think you’re close but like a mirage in the desert it’s always just that little bit further off. You’re writing towards it, to hold it and keep it. So the greatest challenge in getting the collection together was knowing when to stop tweaking.  Unlike other writers I never got to the point where I inserted a comma and then, in the next draft, removed it. I might well turn up at the printer’s door pleading to be let in and change one more word an hour before it goes to press!

Short stories are often overlooked as a genre – from curriculum reading lists to publishing opportunities. Why do you think this is?

Yes, considering Ireland has such a strong tradition and is so highly regarded in the form it is quite baffling that short stories are so rarely prescribed reading at all three levels in the education system. I don’t know why that is, apart from a certain blindness perhaps, and the perception that only writers read short stories.

What would you say was the most exciting event in your writing career so far and what would you like to achieve in the future?

Naturally, having The Stinging Fly Press offer to publish my first collection- a great thrill. These days short story writers have almost given up hope of publishing collections- I know I had. Most move onto writing novels because the novel appears to offer the best chance of getting published. I do have a draft of a novel written but I continue to write stories. I can’t not- I’m addicted. The future? Just to keep writing.

What writers have influenced you?

Early on poetry had- and still has- a great influence- Yeats and Eliot especially, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ted Hughes. When I started writing I read the Americans- Carver, Ford, Flannery O’Connor, Cheever, Updike, etc. Ian McEwan’s collections First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets made a great early impression.  Then, one August, I found myself trapped for two weeks in a self-induced nightmare- a package holiday in Cyprus. The Beggar Maid and Dance of the Happy Shades and a quiet corner of the air-conditioned hotel lobby saved me. Outside the earth fried but I was transported to Northern Ontario and tumbled into something I had hungered for. Seamus Heaney in an essay in The Government of the Tongue describes first coming upon Kavanagh’s poem ‘Spraying the Potatoes’and how excited he was to find the ordinary familiar details of rural life- things he considered beyond or below books, like headlands and blue potato spray- standing their ground in the world of literature. Alice Munro was my Kavanagh.

Another favourite writer is J.M. Coetzee. I sometimes wish he’d write stories too…  imagine, that quiet reflection, the sorrow dropping, the suffering of animals. He read in Listowel a few years ago. He was very brittle and I was very awed. I think that if I’d approached him to have my book signed one of us might well have fainted- more likely my awe would have knocked him out.

Ethel Rohan discussed three of the most influential short stories she read as a teen in an earlier blog post – do you have any particular favourites that you’d like to share with us?

Yes, like Ethel, the school stories mattered and later in college, The Dubliners. Alice Munro’s title story in The Beggar Maid, and another one, Material, were early influences. Her stories have a unique emotional reach. She does time transitions superbly too- the passage of years and generations- she does these quietly, seamlessly. In just a few words, in fact.

I know immediately if a story has that blue-potato-spray effect, that Cyprus feel. The heart races. I read with greed and cannot get enough. Clare Keegan’s stories do this, and Amy Bloom’s, and recently, James Salter’s.  Salter’s story My Lord You completely arrested me.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’m looking forward to the weekend -thanks to the festival and The Stinging Fly for giving me the opportunity to read here.

A huge thank you to you, Mary, for agreeing to this interview. And for those of you who’d like to read more blog posts from Mary, you can read Mary Costello’s New York Diary over on The Stinging Fly website.

Mary Costello will be reading with  Kathleen Murray on Saturday, 17th September at 4pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork.

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Stories of my Youth by Ethel Rohan

This will be my first time to participate in the Cork International Short Story Festival. Also the first time I will read my work and teach a fiction writing workshop in Ireland. A lifelong friend and my brother and sister plan to attend my reading, another first. It’s huge to me to read and teach in Ireland and at the Cork International Short Story Festival in particular. I’ve a true sense of coming home and full-circle.

As a girl growing up in Dublin’s Northside, one of the first stories I remember having a deep affect on me is Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince (1888). It begins:

High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.

It’s a haunting fairy tale that centers on such themes as loss, seeing, duty, sacrifice, and betrayal. The full text is here.

Think how uncanny it felt to me then, all these years later, to read the following [excerpted] blurb for my story collection, Cut Through the Bone:

These stories create a sense of loss in the reader, an ache, but thankfully they avoid dull cynicism. Instead, they bear witness to the difficulty of living for oneself while sacrificing for others. In one story a woman pleads, ‘I’m here though? Tell me I’m here.’ Ethel Rohan’s stories are like testaments to all the women and men who’ve asked the same thing of the world. Those folks remain unseen to most, but this truly talented artist isn’t blind.

— Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine

Another story that stands out from my youth is Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation” (1931). It ends:

Noble says he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the whole world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it, but with me it was as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away, and even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind me, and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.

This harrowing story also centers on loss, seeing, duty, sacrifice, and betrayal.

The third story that spoke to me as a teenager in a profound way was James Joyce’s Araby. The yearning and disappointment are palpable and deeply resonate. It ends:

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

The full text can be read here.

Those stellar Irish stories that influenced me as a child and captured my imagination have stayed, and continue to inspire me today. As an emigrant, it’s fascinating to me, too, that the three stories above also center on the lure of distant places. I’m blessed to have lived two lives: The first in Ireland and the second in America. I write from both selves, but at my core I am fiercely Irish. Everything that comes out in my writing is colored by my Irish childhood. For, to borrow from O’Connor, “anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about.”

All this said, I applaud the Festival’s shift away from the old guard and its dedication to and championing of the best in contemporary short fiction. Ireland and her people are hurting, reeling yet again in its displacement and disillusionment. Yet whenever the odds are stacked against us we always harken back to the heart of ourselves and our unique language, arts, history, culture and legacy. We pull ourselves back up and raise our voices. We are a force. I don’t think it’s too grand a statement to say that stories have always played a critical part in Ireland’s psyche and salvation. Our best stories order our chaos, light up the dim and the dark, and show us who we are. Show us how to go on.

Ethel Rohan will be reading on Friday, 16 September with Alison MacLeod @ 4pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork

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