Tag Archives: Cork International Short Story Festival

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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A work in progress: North Road by Eoin McNamee

A few years ago I was driving out of Kilmarnock at midday I was on a piece of dual carriageway between roundabouts on the outskirts of town.  I met a woman in a yellow dressing gown walking down the white line between the lanes. She looked as if she had wandered out of some dream she was having about herself. This story, not yet finished,  from which this extract is taken is called The North Road.

The North Road

   The woman was walking down the middle of the road outside Kilmarnock. It was midday and she was walking between the two lanes, going north. She was wearing a yellow towelling dressing gown and slippers.  She had a lit cigarette in her left hand. There was a bruise on her cheekbone. She walked with her head back and her grey eyes looked north. Cars moved out of her way. She was haughty in her despair. If there was a realm of bad choices she would be queen.

Ellie  had been adopted and had been looking for her birth mother for some years. She wrote to social workers and adoption agencies. She had been led to believe the process would be straightforward but it wasn`t. There were aspects of herself that had to be unearthed, fragile papers. She thought  boy princes entombed. There would be papyri, inscriptions in lost languages.

Ken and Sandra  had brought her up. They were like people who had seen a film of parenthood a long time ago and had tried to re-create it from memory. Whole passages were missing. No-one knew what came next.

An adoption agency sent her the address of a an aunt in Craigmullar on the outskirts of Edinburgh. She wrote to it and a cousin answered.

Your letter has come as a shock to my mother who you call your aunt. She says that what is in the past stays in the past. It would be best for you to keep away and not be digging at things. She says that it is all water under the bridge and anyway her sister has moved away and is not in good health and it would not be good for her if you are who you say you are 

  Yr cousin Kyle

Eoin McNamee will be reading with Glenn Patterson on Saturday, 17th September at 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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Welcome to the Cork International Short Story Festival blog

…formerly the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival.

Taking place from September 14th – 18th, 2011, in the Hotel Metropole, Cork, the festival will feature an exciting programme of readings, public Interviews, seminars, walking tours, the Seán Ó Faoláin Prize and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

For those of you new to the festival, The Frank O’Connor award is for 35,000 euro for an entire short story collection and the Sean O’Faolain award is for a single short story, awarding publication in the Southword journal and a sum of around 1500 euro. Both awards celebrate this often overlooked genre, rejoicing in the very the best of Irish and international contemporary short story writers.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be interviewing some of the shortlisted writers and festival organisers, updating you with the latest news and information, as well as introducing you to some of my personal festival highlights. When the festival begins, I’ll be there, bringing you coverage of as many events as I can physically attend.

If you use twitter, you can follow my live coverage by following me @ERMurray – or by following the #corkshortstory hashtag. You can also find out more information by liking the Facebook page or visiting the official website. View the full festival brochure here.


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