Tag Archives: author interview

Suzanne Rivecca interviewed by Patrick Cotter

On your interview over on the festival blog, you expressed your annoyance at the initial reaction of your book…

Yes. As a bit of background, the book is mainly female protagonists; tries to be frank and open about issues not usually explored with much candor; sexuality, sexual abuse, relationships and their Initially there were some reviewers who hit the same refrain al of the time; seeing the characters, as twisted and neurotic…I felt it wouldn’t have had the same reaction if the protagonists had been men. I feel men’s suffering in literature is seen as universal; shedding light on the human condition. But if it’s a female character, there’s a squeamishness… it really irritated me because my book was being looked at through a gender-specific lens.

You’re becoming very famous in America now but here you’re relatively new; can you describe a little about your background?

I have a very boring background, growing up in Michigan in a middle class family, with catholic schooling. I don’t think my family was a factor at all in my urge to become a writer; it always felt inherent. My parents read to us a lot, but they didn’t really read fiction for pleasure; it wasn’t part of our daily routine. I’d always felt compelled to write; it was very urgent and personal to me, very private, my escape.

The Bronte’s started writing about their brother’s toy soldier collection. When did you start writing?

I have written for as long as I could remember. There was a certain age when I started saying vocationally that I wanted to be writer; when I understood that it was a category which you could use to identify yourself. I always wrote prose fiction; I tried poetry but I was the worst, wordy poet and realised quickly that prose fiction was what I should work with.

You had a distinguished college writing career – did you have anything published beforehand or did you have to provide a portfolio?

I had to provide a portfolio and it was very bad work. Those were the days when I had an immense allegiance to and feel for words and language, but I didn’t have any idea of how to create a character, how to convey a narrative. My characters were just a voice which was a talking head without any concept of what was going on around her. Objectively, I guess it was my use of language that they saw in me because that was all I had going for me at that time.

Compare and contrast the situation of being part of an MFA course, and then a stigma fellowship.

They’re actually different in a way that you wouldn’t expect; I found my MFA programme to be quite alienating in its atmosphere, and quite competitive. That was when I became quite disillusioned with academia as a whole – petty politics consumed and had nothing to do with writing. I wrote while people got drunk and tried to impress the famous people on the faculty. Then when I got to the stigma fellowship I discovered the social side of writing; I discovered how people come become better writers using each other as an influence. I had conversations about writing and literature which I hadn’t done before. There was a certain purity to that which I found validating. It was very much treating writing in pro-active rather than analysing writing in the abstract.

You can’t judge a book by its cover clearly isn’t something publishers believe in – there’s an interesting story behind the hard back version of your book.

When we talked about the cover, I asked my publishers, please, whatever you do, don’t make the cover of my book a photo of a woman gazing into the distance, or wistfully walking down a lane in a sundress or a shot of a woman from the thighs down. I specifically asked that that not be done. I asked that a tiger somehow be incorporated into the cover because one of the stories contained a tiger. They listened to me and were completely respectful and created a beautiful cover which I thought was emblematic of the book and the collection; I was disappointed the tiger didn’t make it to the paperback but they gave me so much leeway before, I was happy to let it go.

The book is dedicated to a tiger, and why is that?

In 2007 a tiger escaped from the enclosure in the San Franciscan zoo and attacked three young men who had been bating the tiger; the tiger escaped, killed one and injured the other two. The police came and shot the tiger and killed it. When that incident happened, my sympathies were with the tiger and it seemed such a waste of life to me; towards mysteries in general. There are certain things that are mysterious because that’s what they should be and this mythologised creature is one of those things and shouldn’t have been placed in the path of those men in the first place

There’s no genius without humour – can you relate to that saying?

Yeah – humour is so much a part – whether it’s appropriate or not – it’s integral to how human beings process things that happen to them. Loss of humour in a story would be doing a disservice to the scope of human experience.

I think you’re right; and it’s also asking the audience to react in the same way. Your individual way of telling the story of child molestation – is it primarily driven by your concerns as an artist or as someone motivated by rebelling against the disservice.

For a very long time I’ve had visceral reactions to template portrayals on media, tv shows and literature, of child molestation. I think on the one hand it was a very instinctive decision – there was no agenda – but there a fierce mission to express some kind of truth which I didn’t feel had been done. There is an accepted narrative; this is what it is, this is how it affects people and that’s it. It’s formulaic and damaging.

Where in the process of composing the book did you write the stories with younger protagonists?

With the title story “Death is not an option” that’s the oldest story in the book and thats the only one from my MFA that made it into the book. The one with the girl in the early twenties was a bit later. Some reviewers in America think the title story is too glib or is trying to sound too hip; others love it because it’s the most immediate and most visceral. People either love it or hate it.

So now you’re writing about Walt Whitman?

Yes. The novel I’m working on is written (so far) in the first person and I’m trying not to think too hard about how audacious that is – and I’m also trying not to emulate his voice. It’s the bewildered, disaffected part of his life that I’m focusing on; the type of protagonist I’m always attracted to – someone trying to establish themselves in the world.

Audience question: How has it been for you having a book published and affected you as a writer?

There have been positive and negative affects; I was so used to writing for me by blocking out the idea of readers – and so the book being received as an object that doesn’t belong solely to me has been disconcerting as well as validating; but now I realise there are external expectations. I always wrote solely for my own gratification; but the reality of the reality has put a gloss of attachment to my work now. The only way I can deal with it is to artificially construct for myself that mentality that I had before my book. I have to think about why I’m writing and follow the bit that resonates to me and focus on that.

You were asked in an interview what you’d like to ask a reader and you replied that you’d like to know what they thought the last story in your collection was about. What does the final story mean for you?

It involves an encounter with the tiger; I guess that story has always meant a person’s ability to confront in normal time the ability to distill mystery – something unknowable that only retains its mysteries if it always stays unknowable. I think there’s an element in every person that has that mystery, that is unknowable. That story is representative of that; we should keep that mystery because it’s so integral to us, not for ourselves or others to understand.

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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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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:


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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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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